Victims of 2005 BP Texas Plant Blast Concerned About Plea Deal

November 30, 2007

A judge allowed victims of BP PLC’s deadly 2005 plant explosion to pursue complaints about a plea agreement resulting from a federal investigation of the accident.

Attorneys for the victims have argued that a $50 million (euro33.9 million) fine brokered between the London-based company and the U.S. Justice Department is insufficient. One of the victims’ attorneys, David Perry, has asked that the fine be $1 billion (euro680 million).

They want to reject the plea deal that came out of a federal probe of the explosion that killed 15 workers and injured more than 170 others at BP’s Texas City plant.

U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal said she was going to allow victims’ attorneys to submit additional information about the history of fines BP has been assessed, whether BP is being granted some form of immunity because a subsidiary is named as the only defendant in the plea agreement, and whether the fine can be increased.

Rosenthal said she would use this additional information to decide whether to order a presentence report. Such reports are standard in criminal cases and offer a judge a wide range of information, such as a defendant’s criminal history, that is used in determining a final sentence.

BP and federal prosecutors have asked to waive the pre-sentence report, arguing Rosenthal has various investigative reports on the accident that will give her enough information to make a decision.

Prosecutors and attorneys for BP denied the company was getting any immunity from the plea agreement. Prosecutors also said while victims have the right to speak at the sentencing hearing, they have no standing to object to the plea agreement.

“We think the court has enough information to accept or reject the plea,” said prosecutor Stephen Mark McIntyre.

If she orders the report, Rosenthal would use it when deciding whether to accept or reject the plea agreement. But she also said she could decide to accept or reject the agreement without ordering the report. Rosenthal said she would decide before Feb. 4 whether to order the report.

Attorneys for BP, which did not object to the victims pursuing their complaints, asked Rosenthal to accept the plea agreement.

“The fine we are paying is a just and harsh fine,” said BP attorney Mark Holscher. “The $50 million fine is 100 times greater than what the statute calls for. We agreed to pay a premium here to have closure.”

But victims attorneys told Rosenthal they remain troubled by the agreement.

“The aspects we are concerned about are not being brought to this court’s attention,” Perry said.

BP was scheduled to formally enter a guilty plea earlier, but the recusal of two judges and the objections to the plea agreement led to a delay.

The fine and plea were part of an agreement by BP to pay $373 million (euro252.9 million) to settle various criminal and civil charges.

The explosion at the plant, about 40 miles (64 kilometers) southeast of Houston, occurred after a piece of equipment called a blowdown drum overfilled with highly flammable hydrocarbons.

The excess liquid and vapor hydrocarbons then were vented from the drum and ignited as the isomerization unit – a device that boosts the octane in gasoline – started up. Alarms and gauges that were supposed to warn that the equipment was overfilled didn’t work properly.

The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, one of several agencies that probed the accident, found BP fostered bad management at the plant and that cost-cutting moves by BP were factors in the explosion.

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