Houston Chronicle/The Texas Tribune
March 22, 2015
It took just a spark from a passing truck to ignite one of the most devastating oil refinery tragedies in U.S. history.
On March 23, 2005, a geyser of toxic, highly flammable chemicals spewed from a unit at BP’s sprawling oil refinery in Texas City, triggering a series of explosions that obliterated nearby office trailers, killing 15 people and burning, maiming or otherwise injuring 180 others. Images from that day – flames shooting high above tree tops, thick plumes of black smoke, school children huddling under their desks – became etched in the collective memory of the Gulf Coast town of roughly 43,000.
A series of hearings, government and media investigations and legal proceedings in the following years unearthed a long-lasting culture of neglect that made the refinery a ticking time bomb – findings that led to promises from refineries and regulators to make the industry safer.
But 10 years later, those promises stand either part-filled or largely forgotten, The Texas Tribune and the Houston Chronicle found in a four-part joint investigation that landed on the disaster’s anniversary. Many of the same problems that unleashed the Texas City disaster have shown up in other refineries across the country.
Our team combed through newspaper archives, federal records, legal documents and union reports to piece together the most comprehensive database of U.S. refinery worker deaths over the past two decades. The death toll in the 10 years since the explosion, we found, had barely budged compared to the tally in the 10 years before. Our database – which included the grim details of the fatal accidents – put names to those statistics, shedding light on the harsh realities of life and death at these worksites. The investigation also showed that some companies – including the one that still operates the troubled site in Texas City – continue to put tents and office trailers in danger zones at refineries, despite recommendations to limit the number of workers in harm’s way. Meanwhile, federal officials lack hard data to accurately track deaths and monitor safety trends within the industry.
The two-month investigation, the first collaboration between our newsrooms, leveraged what each does best. Veteran Chronicle reporters, nearer to Texas City, offered impeccable on-the-ground sources and experience covering the industry. The Tribune put forth its knack for gathering and presenting data, and it found compelling ways to tell the stories.
Together, we sought to honor the victims of Texas City and other accidents by holding accountable those responsible, highlighting their actions and inaction. At the very least, we hope this work will prompt more scrutiny of safety at refineries, if not more immediate changes in policy.
LINK to story online
Submitted by Emily Ramshaw.