July 7, 2010 — -- A 2005 accident at a BP refinery confined David Leining to a wheelchair for six months. It killed Ralph Dean's father-in-law and left his wife badly scarred and too sick to work.
Both men say someone should go to jail over what happened.
BP officials "didn't get in any trouble for killing people," said Dean, 49, a former engineering firm worker who, along with his wife and father-in-law, once contracted with BP. "They're still doing it... You're consumable if you're a blue-collar worker for BP. If you get hurt, they throw a little money at it and go on."
Five years before April's Gulf of Mexico oil rig explosion killed 11 workers, energy giant BP was grappling with another fatal explosion, this time at its refinery in Texas City, Texas. That explosion, in March, 2005, killed 15 people and injured many more, including Leining, 58, a retired BP construction adviser, and Dean's wife.
Now, some survivors of the blast, the families of those killed and their lawyers are trying to inject new life into a months-long campaign to get the government to reopen its investigation into the causes of the Texas City accident. They say they hope individual BP executives will be held accountable for the accident and might even see jail time.
Brent Coon and David Perry, two of the lawyers representing the blast victims, said the Gulf of Mexico explosion and the massive oil spill that continues today should encourage the Department of Justice to seek to revoke a 2007 plea deal that effectively ended investigation of the Texas City accident.
"The problem is (BP's) system," Coon said. "The way it's set up, it puts safety last."
"The fact is, they are a serial killer, a serial polluter, a serial fraudster, and one would hope that the prosecuting authorities would decide to be serious about them," Perry said.
BP and the Department of Justice declined to comment on the Texas City plea deal revocation efforts.
Under the terms of the deal, BP pleaded guilty to a felony charge for violating the federal Clean Air Act, agreed to serve a three-year probationary period and to pay a $50 million fine. (BP has also compensated victims of the blast, including the Deans -- the couple now lives off their settlement and Ralph Dean said he gave up his job to care for his wife.) In return, the Justice Department agreed not to bring additional criminal charges against BP.
Lawyer: OSHA Fines Show BP Violated Probation
Coon and Perry argue that plea deal should be revoked because BP, they say, violated the terms of its probation. Its agreement with the Justice Department, Coon said, was contingent on BP complying with an earlier, separate agreement with the Occupational Health and Safety Administration. That agreement stipulated, in the wake of the Texas City tragedy, that BP eliminate potential safety hazards at the refinery.
But in October, 2009 OSHA announced that it would fine BP $87.4 million for allegedly failing to comply with the agreement and for committing new safety violations. BP has contested OSHA's findings before a judge.
"We continue to believe that we are in full compliance with the Settlement Agreement, and we look forward to demonstrating that," Texas City refinery manager Keith Casey said in a statement issued in late October.
The OSHA anouncement led Texas City blast victims' lawyers to first request the revocation of the BP plea agreement -- which could potentially reopen the Texas City investigation -- last fall. In May, Coon also sent a letter urging the judge who presided over the plea deal to revoke the agreement.
Coon said he's not heard back from the judge but did meet with Justice Department officials late last month. Whether anything comes of that meeting, he said, remains to be seen.
"We're waiting to hear from them," he said.
Perry said that the BP situation contrasts starkly with the those of individuals who violate probation, including actress Lindsay Lohan, who was sentenced to 90 days in jail on Tuesday for missing alcohol education classes.
"You have an individual like Lindsay Lohan, who violates their probation and their probation gets revoked and they go to jail. BP violates their probation and nothing happens," he said. "It's not a good lesson to teach our children."
Scott West, a former special agent at the Environmental Protection Agency Criminal Investigation Division who has investigated BP in the past, said that threatening individual executives with jail time is more effective than fines in preventing future crimes.
"The idea is you change corporate behavior when you hold individuals criminally liable," he said. "It's one thing if a company has to pay a fine for your decision. It's another if you have to go to jail because of a decision you made at your company."
West worked on the government's investigation of another BP disaster -- a 2006 Alaska pipeline spill. BP agreed to a settlement in that case at the same time it reached a plea deal in the Texas City case. In the Alaska case, the company plead guilty to a misdemeanor violation of the U.S. Federal Water Pollution Control Act and agreed to more fines. In exchange, the Justice Department and the State of Alaska agreed to file no other criminal charges.
West said that that settlement put an abrupt end to an investigation that should have taken years to complete and might have eventually pointed the finger at specific people responsible for the spill.
"Instead, we had to settle for the misdemeanor against the company and were unable to go after any individuals," he said.
West said he supports efforts by the Texas City victim lawyers to get the 2007 plea deal revoked.
Leining, the former BP construction adviser injured at Texas City, said he's also in favor of the revocation efforts but is skeptical that anyone connected to the Texas City explosion will spend time behind bars.
"Everybody's going to shake hands and come out smiling," he said. "Nobody's going to be held accountable for nothing at the end of the day."