I have known guest blogger Jane Dale Owen for more than a decade. She is one of Houston’s leading environmental champions and president of Citizens League for Environmental Action Now (CLEAN). Owen is the granddaughter of Robert Lee Blaffer, co-founder of Humble Oil, which “would later consolidate with Standard Oil of New Jersey to become Exxon.”
Throughout history, industry has endangered public health and the environment by ignoring early warning signs. Government and industry leaders have failed to follow the Precautionary Principle, a guide toward preventing harm to the planet and to human health. Instead, industry has been allowed to play Russian Roulette with the environment and our lives. Now 11 people have died and much of the Gulf is dying as a result of the latest outrageous industrial catastrophe.
The British Petroleum (BP) oil spill is perhaps the best example of why we must require industry to follow the Precautionary Principle and heed early warning signs. Why did BP and government agencies wait so late to drill a relief well? In fragile areas of Canada, relief wells are required to be drilled in the same season the main well is drilled. Why did they wait until after this disaster to convene experts to discuss ways to clean up this spill? Shouldn’t this team have been in place as part of the planning of a project so hazardous that it now threatens the health of the planet? They certainly knew this could happen.
Why did the government allow BP to take on this project in the first place? The negligence and lies discovered in the investigation of the 2005 explosion at a BP refinery in Texas City should have been enough to bar BP from doing business in the United States. To allow this company to pursue what now seems to be an experiment with nature, seems absolutely absurd.
Governmental agencies including the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had plenty of evidence to shut down BP after the Texas City explosion that resulted in 15 deaths and 170 injuries.
After the accident,The Baker Panel, an independent panel led by then Secretary of State James Baker, reviewed the safety culture, management systems and corporate safety oversite of the company’s U.S. refineries. The review revealed that BP was perpetrating “egregious willful” acts of neglect in the maintenance and safety precautions required by Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and other agencies.
Testimony about the Chemical Safety Board’s findings in the investigation of the BP Texas City accident noted that, “Thorough implementation of existing OSHA and EPA process safety rules would have prevented a number of tragic accidents, including the one at Texas City.”
In the past three years, OSHA has cited BP for alleged violations of a rule designed to “prevent catastrophic events at refineries,” according to the Center for Public Integrity.
Investigations of the BP oil spill are finding the company again knowingly ignored serious safety issues and was aware of mechanical failures that could lead to the horrific explosion and environmental disaster that occurred in the Gulf on April 20. As long ago as last summer, engineers on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig expressed concern about a metal casing that might collapse under pressure. They were ignored.
To make matters worse, BP has carelessly pumped almost a million gallons of a toxic dispersant into the Gulf to cause the oil to break up and sink out of site. Did they think that if the oil were dropping to the bottom of the ocean out of sight that all would be well? Out of sight out of mind? And now we are beginning to understand that the droplets of oil combined with the Corexit 9500 dispersant are likely to wreak havoc on all ocean creatures and plants that come in contact with it.
And where are the regulatory agencies in this? In hearings about the BP Texas City refinery disaster, expert testimony revealed that one of the critical pieces of equipment that failed (a blowdown drum) was installed in the 1950s. This antiquated, faulty equipment was never reported or discovered by TCEQ through many years and a series of permit application reviews related to the BP Texas City refinery. BP’s Fatal Accident Investigation Report states: “The likelihood of this incident could have been reduced by discontinuing the use of the F-20 blowdown stack for light end hydrocarbon service and installing inherently safer options when they were available.”
In off-shore drilling, and other fragile environments in other parts of the world, BP volunteers or is required to take precautions such as installing acoustic switches that can be remotely triggered to shut off gushing pipes at the sea floor wellhead when a manual switch fails. In the United States, safeguards that should have been required by the Minerals Management Service were weakened during the Bush Administration and have not been reinstated. These safeguards could have prevented this disastrous oil spill.
As U.S. citizens and good stewards of the Earth, we can no longer allow speed and greed to rule our planet. We must demand that U.S. industry and government follow the Precautionary Principle — “When an activity raises threats of harm to the environment or human health, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.” If the right questions had been asked and safeguards had been established before the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig punctured the ocean floor, this horrible catastrophe in our beautiful ocean and Gulf Coast could have been prevented.
– Jane Dale Owen