BP Downplayed Explosion, Attorneys Say. BP E-Mails Tried to Downplay Accident, Workers' Attorney Says

Attorneys for four workers injured in a 2005 refinery blast showed jurors e-mails that they claim indicate BP PLC initially tried to downplay the severity of the accident.

An internal e-mail sent by Patricia Wright, a BP media relations official, right after the March 23, 2005, explosion told others in the company to "expect a lot of follow up (media) coverage tomorrow. Then I believe it will essentially go away -- due (to) the holiday weekend." The holiday was Easter. ( AP )

In another e-mail, John Manzoni, BP's former refining and marketing chief executive, told a friend that he spent the day at Texas City right after the accident "at the cost of a precious day of my leave." Manzoni was on a skiing vacation in Colorado when the accident happened.

"This is repetitious and totally irrelevant to how this accident happened and how these people were injured," said BP attorney Ronnie Krist said, adding the e-mails were only shown in order to prejudice the jury against the company.

The e-mails were shown as Don Parus, the former plant manager at Texas City, began his fourth day of testimony in the first civil trial stemming from the accident that killed 15 people and injured more than 170 others.

Parus on Monday tried to downplay worker concerns found in a study, called the Telos Report, that looked at the safety culture of the plant.

Some of the concerns expressed by workers in the study, released two months before the blast, included:

-- The equipment is in dangerous condition and this is not taken seriously

-- We are not using our money to protect ourselves from catastrophe

-- They want us to be safe but I don't feel like they are truly into safety

Parus, who is on paid administrative leave, said he was surprised by many employee comments in the Telos Report, which he had requested. But he said many of the comments were workers' opinions of what they saw at the refinery.

"It's what the people perceive to be real. We can argue what perception and reality are," he said.

Parus denied that budget concerns would prevent him from fixing units if they were seriously in disrepair. He added that he once went $20 million over budget to pay for unscheduled maintenance.

"If you find something that needs to be fixed, you fix it," he said. "The budget doesn't control me.

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

The excess liquid and vapor hydrocarbons were then 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 of the overfilled equipment didn't work properly.

Parus also told jurors that before the accident, BP did not recognize the risk of placing trailers around the isomerization unit. All 15 deaths happened in the two trailers closest to the blast site. Since the explosion, BP has removed all temporary structures from the refinery.

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.

An internal report by London-based BP released in May said there was a culture at the plant that seemed to ignore risk, tolerated noncompliance and accepted incompetence.

The trial, which began last week, could last up to two months.

About 1,350 of the thousands of lawsuits filed since the accident have been settled.

The blast has cost the company at least $2 billion in compensation payouts, repairs and lost profit.

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