“When Giant Cauldrons Explode”

[Note from Christopher:  I grew up in the oil and petrochemical belt along the Upper Texas Coast. We lived right next door to several such industrial plants. So I may have been in Prague, Czech Republic, on March 23, 2005, when the BP oil refinery at Texas City, Texas, exploded, but it caught my attention. Explosions like that are something I grew up thinking about. Because you just never know when they’ll occur. And a disaster of that kind kills people. And usually injures many more. So I put my thoughts to paper and wrote this column, which was published in the Houston Chronicle newspaper on April 24, 2005. It was subsequently reprinted elsewhere, too. I suppose what it has to say resonated with folks.]


April 24, 2005

When we were children, we begged our mother to drive down Sarah Jane Road so we could cross the bridge and see the rainbow-colored water. The water—dark red, bright orange, a sulfurous yellow—gushed down a canal from a local refinery and dumped directly into the Neches River. A chemical mist rose from its surface, as did a pungent, nose-wrinkling stench.

Unlike us, my mother was not entranced by this witch’s brew. Like most residents of the Texas Gulf Coast near Louisiana, a region densely teeming with oil refineries and petrochemical plants, she preferred not to think about the dark side of the industry forming the backbone of our local economy—indeed, an entire nation’s economy.

But occasionally it became impossible to avoid, as when a plant blew up. Then the TV news crews arrived, along with newspaper reporters from as far away as New York, to report the number of casualties, corporate safety records, the possible effect on gasoline prices at the pump. The media frenzy would last a week, offering tragic “personal accounts” as corporate fault and innocence was assessed… and then the journalists disappeared, and life returned to normal. Out on Sarah Jane Road, beneath a low, paved bridge in the marsh, the rainbow water flowed on.

These memories recently returned like Hamlet’s ghost when, on March 23, the BP oil refinery at Texas City exploded. The news reached me by radio here in Prague, Czech Republic, within hours. The numbers were duly reported: BP’s largest refinery in the U.S., processing 460,000 barrels of Saudi and Venezuelan crude daily, producing 3 percent of the nation’s gasoline, with 1,800 employees. At least 15 dead, more than a 100 injured. Oil and gasoline prices would probably rise.

But in the community of Texas City, I knew, the story would be different. In the wake of the explosion, after the sirens and helicopters and chaos, each resident would know someone killed, or someone who did, as well as survivors who lost legs, or eyesight, or were burned in the fire—human beings whose lives were now irreparably changed.

And in the local cafes and taverns, there would be discussions about how the disaster occurred after a maintenance “turnaround” performed by a non-union contractor offering the lowest, cost-saving bid. There would be hushed conversations about the lack of safety in the refinery—about corners cut, rules routinely broken, poorly trained contract workers—and the inevitable cover-up from federal regulators in bed with the industry.

And they would be right, of course, though circumspect in saying so too loud, or too publicly. After all, as a condition of employment, company workers have signed a document forbidding them to talk to the media. Their jobs are at stake. Why forfeit one’s livelihood for a cause—strict but “costly” enforcement of industrial safety standards—that every corporate and government official loudly embraces but habitually rationalizes away?

Because it does come down to that, in the end: jobs. The jobs of the refinery workers, the jobs of the corporate executives, the jobs of the regulators, the job of every American who works for an employer where “affordable” energy prices mean economic success or failure in this “new global marketplace”.

So I was not surprised to learn that the BP refinery in Texas City, like BP facilities elsewhere, has a history of safety violations. Nor was I surprised to learn that federal regulators in the Occupational Safety and Health Administration have assessed large fines in the past, then quietly dropped or reduced them later. That’s how the game is played.

And those who work in the refineries and plants along the Texas Gulf Coast know it. For them, it’s an unhappy but accepted fact of life, as inevitable as corporate greed and crooked politicians and the occasional brief media frenzy that follows an industrial catastrophe.

By now, the dead from this latest calamity are buried. The injured are receiving medical care. Industry spokespersons have duly called it “a very serious accident”. Federal regulators are investigating. The media has moved on, having discovered the latest big story.

And down in Texas City, and all along the Gulf Coast where the giant cauldrons cook oil for the nation, residents are returning to an uneasy truce with their economic sustenance. Many are recollecting the good old days “before Reagan” when trained union workers operated the refineries and chemical plants, when union craftsmen maintained them. Some are consulting lawyers.

As for me—faraway here on the banks of the Vltava River in this Central European city—I am remembering the gas flares of my youth, the acrid air, the rainbow-colored water. I am curious if it’s still there. I am wondering if anything changes.



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