Judge approves disputed BP plea deal in Texas City blast
By KRISTEN HAYS
Copyright 2009 Houston Chronicle
March 13, 2009
A division of BP officially became a felon Thursday when a federal judge accepted a long-pending plea bargain to resolve a criminal investigation into the deadly 2005 explosion at the company’s Texas City refinery.
U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal ordered BP to pay the agreed-upon $50 million fine by Monday and comply with blast-related settlements with regulators while on probation for three years.
The explosion on March 23, 2005, killed 15 workers and hurt many more.
Rosenthal’s ruling came nearly a year and a half after the plea deal was unveiled in late October 2007. In February 2008, Texas City plant manager Keith Casey pleaded guilty on the company’s behalf to a felony violation of the Clean Air Act.
But Rosenthal held off on approving or rejecting the deal as blast victims repeatedly implored her to toss it out.
Victims say the fine is too small, that BP has failed to abide by blast-related settlements with regulators and that prosecutors bypassed a 2004 federal victim rights law requiring prosecutors to confer with victims before drafting the accord.
Rosenthal heard arguments and testimony on all those points. A 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel sided with victims regarding the 2004 law but stopped short of ordering Rosenthal to reject the plea deal, leaving the final decision in her hands.
“I don’t think there’s any question as to the extent of opportunity that has been extended and used” by everyone who wanted to be heard, Rosenthal said Thursday.
After “a great deal of thought and consideration,” she said, “the plea should be accepted.”
Trial chances considered
In a 138-page order, Rosenthal noted that the case is among few in which the government successfully applied a felony violation to an industrial accident. She also said she considered the possibility that the government might lose at trial or fail to prove under environmental laws that BP should pay more than $50 million.
Eva Rowe, whose parents, James and Linda Rowe, were among the 15 people killed by the blast, dabbed tears from her eyes as Rosenthal announced her decision.
“I just think it’s unfair,” she said after the brief hearing. “Fifty million dollars, they make that much in less than one day.”
‘Cost of a traffic ticket’
Brent Coon, the attorney who represented Rowe and headed up massive civil litigation stemming from the blast, said the fine “equates to the cost of a traffic ticket for an individual.”
BP has responded that $50 million is the highest fine ever imposed for a Clean Air Act violation and the punishment is sufficiently harsh.
In addition to the felony plea and fine, BP’s North American products division, which oversees U.S. refineries including Texas City, must comply with settlements with the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to meet conditions of probation. Failure to do so would violate the plea deal.
Rowe said she’s certain BP will violate those probation terms at some point in the next three years despite the company’s professed commitment to safety.
“We’ll be waiting for them to mess up. It won’t be long,” she said.
Company spokesman Daren Beaudo said the company deeply regrets the harm caused by the disaster and BP remains committed to its efforts to “reduce risk, increase plant integrity and increase environmental compliance.”
Rosenthal told victims in a hearing more than a year ago that she could only accept or reject what was presented to her. She could not impose a different punishment or a higher fine.
All civil claims settled
In the deal, BP admits that on the morning of the blast, several procedures required under the Clean Air Act to ensure mechanical integrity and the safe startup of processing units were either ignored or not established.
Since the plea deal was unveiled, BP settled all the more than 4,000 civil claims stemming from the blast, with claims paid from $2.1 billion BP set aside to resolve them.
David Perry, one of the lawyers who represented victims, told Rosenthal that “notwithstanding our disagreement with the court’s decision,” victims appreciate that they were heard.