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September 10, 2007 at 12:51 pm #3949
Sept. 7, 2007, 2:22PM
Witness: Few at BP knew of 30-year death toll
Former manager surprised to tally almost two dozen before ’05 blast
By BRAD HEM Copyright 2007 Houston Chronicle ( http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/metropolitan/5115102.html )
GALVESTON — A former plant manager for BP’s Texas City refinery testified Thursday he was so concerned about three deaths there in 2004 that he dug into the death rate for the previous 30 years — and was surprised to find as many as he did.
Don Parus, who has been on leave since the March 23, 2005, blast, found 22 deaths. A 23rd was found later.
But even more surprising to Parus was how that death toll wasn’t widely known in the company.
“It was shocking that all employees didn’t know, not just management,” said Parus, who became emotional when he spoke of visiting an injured worker in a hospital before he died in 2004.
His appearance on the witness stand at the first trial to emerge from the blast that killed 15 people and injured scores more marked the first time he has spoken publicly about it.
Parus, who is among four senior executives targeted to be fired in an internal BP investigation completed in February, is slated to continue testifying today.
The trial involves four contractors who are suing BP for injuries and emotional distress inflicted by the blast. BP says their claims are weak and they are using the blast to seek a big payoff.
Before this trial, BP had settled at least 1,350 of about 3,000 blast-related lawsuits.
Parus said his findings prompted him to hire a workplace safety consultant, Telos Group, to study the safety culture at the refinery.
A survey of 1,100 workers found many believed each day at work could be their last.
“We have never seen a site where the notion of ‘I could die today’ was so real for so many hourly people,” the report said.
Parus shared the results with U.S. supervisors and at company headquarters in London. He also testified that he had authority to close the plant, but didn’t think it was necessary.
“There was no indication prior to the incident that required shutdown of the facility,” he said
As part of his 2005 budget, he requested money for upgrades. Instead, he testified, his budget was reduced, even though the refinery pulled in up to $100 million a month in profits.
The plant was “printing money,” he was quoted as saying in a document presented into evidence Thursday.
Brent Coon, the plaintiffs’ lawyer who has taken the lead in organizing it and much of the other blast-related litigation against the company, pointed out that even though Parus had been targeted to be fired, he remained employed.
Of the other three executives the internal probe recommended be fired, one retired and two others remain on the payroll.
Parus got a $150,000 bonus in 2005 He also reluctantly acknowledged under questioning from Coon that BP pays him $279,000 annually, even though he hasn’t worked for more than two years.
“I’m over here, sir,” Coon said, when Parus hesitated at answering a question about his salary and looked at BP’s legal team.
Parus said BP officials put him on “indefinite” leave in May 2005 so he could help with investigations into the blast. But he acknowledged he hasn’t been tapped to help.
“In reality, you were put on ice at your house,” Coon said.
Coon also asked whether BP has kept him on staff to ensure he won’t turn sour while the litigation plays out.
Parus said he didn’t know the answer to that, and that Coon would have to ask BP.
Parus also testified that he wants to resume working for BP, preferably at the Texas City refinery. But he said no one from the company has told him whether he will return to work, be fired or remain on leave.
Coon also produced internal BP documents that showed the company had done cost-benefit analyses that determined it was cheaper not to use blast-resistant trailers at refineries and a human life was valued at $10 million.
Coon aims to focus on BP’s cuts in costs, training and personnel before the blast in the trial. The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board concluded after a two-year investigation of the blast that such cuts paved the way for the tragedy.
BP disputes any link between such cuts and the explosion.
The blast occurred after a piece of equipment overfilled with flammable liquid hydrocarbons. Alarms and gauges failed, and vented vapor ignited during startup of a unit that boosts octane in gasoline.
Chronicle reporter Kristen Hays in Houston contributed to this story.
September 10, 2007 at 4:21 pm #7282
It is a dangerous business. That is a fact.
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