CREDIT: AP Photo/David J. Phillip
BP’s reputation as an unapologetic polluter was undoubtedly sealed on April 20, 2010, when its Deepwater Horizon floating drilling rig exploded and sank in the Gulf, causing the largest oil spill in U.S. history. What is less known, however, is BP’s historic pollution event that began just two weeks earlier.
On April 6 of that year, a BP Texas City petroleum refinery malfunctioned and began spewing a “toxic soup” of 19 different chemicals, including benzene and carbon monoxide, into the air. The chemical release lasted until May 16 — a total of 40 days. The EPA called the emissions event “catastrophic.”
More than 48,000 Texas residents sued the BP unit in charge of the plant, demanding compensation and $10 billion in damages for being unknowingly exposed to the chemicals. But BP escaped liability in the first test case in October, and now the company is attempting to speed up the litigation, claiming most of the plaintiffs cannot prove they were actually harmed.
“The majority of claimants in this action reside or work further away — 3, 4, 5 miles away [from the refinery],” BP said Tuesday in its motion to expedite the case, first reported by legal news site Law360. “These parties are simply clogging up this court and interfering with the prospect that any plaintiff living and working closer to the refinery may ever have an opportunity to prove a meritorious claim.”
According to the lawsuit filed in 2012, BP estimated that at least 538,000 pounds of chemicals and compounds — including at least 17,371 pounds of benzene — were released from the refinery during the 40-day period. Benzene is a carcinogen in oil that has been linked to cancer, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Symptoms reportedly experienced by the plaintiffs ranged from dizziness to nose bleeds, from headaches to sore throats, according the to suit.
The so-called “emissions event,” as BP described it, happened when a fire erupted inside the “100-J” compressor in the Texas City refinery’s ultracracker unit, according to the Center for Public Integrity. “Sparked by a seal failure, the flame forced engineers to shut down what amounts to a crucial pollution-control device,” CPI reported. “Rather than stop production to make repairs, managers opted to burn off the gases through an emergency flare.”
BP could have stopped production immediately in exchange for some public relations damage control, the lawsuit said, but did not.
“This particular event is especially tragic because it could have been avoided entirely if BP had shut down a single operating unit,” the lawsuit says. “However, in order to avoid any delay in production, and in an attempt to avoid the publicity that such a shutdown would have garnered in the financial press, BP intentionally spewed thousands of pounds of carcinogens into the atmosphere.”
Because almost 50,000 people are claiming they were harmed by the emissions, BP is now arguing that it would take more than 1,000 years to litigate all of their claims — a feat that the company says is not only costly, but unnecessary given that most of the claims will fail in court. Most of the people who live in a 2-mile radius of the plant were exposed to very low levels of toxins, BP said, and those who live even further away barely experienced any damage. All of the claims in the suit should be resolved by Thanksgiving 2016, the company said.
It is not uncommon for litigation involving thousands of people to take decades. More than 100,000 people have brought so-called “Engle progeny” lawsuits against the tobacco industry over injuries caused from smoking, all stemming from the historic case of Howard A. Engle, which was brought in 1994. Those cases are only now starting to be decided.
This is not the first time this week BP has attempted to avoid claims from people claiming damage from one of the company’s pollution events. On Thursday, the company asked the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals to halt a $9.2 billion settlement it is supposed to pay out to businesses who were harmed by the Deepwater oil spill, saying not all of the claims are “legitimate.”