BP deliberately exposed neighbors of a Texas refinery to tons of cancer-causing gases for weeks without warning in 2010, a lawyer told a Texas jury.
The lawsuits by four residents are the first of almost 48,000 toxic-exposure claims to come to trial. The plaintiffs seek as much as $200,000 each in actual damages, plus $10 billion in punitive damages which, they said in court papers, they would donate to charity.
“Profits over the environment, profits over safety, profits over people, that’s what this case is about,” Tony Buzbee, the residents’ lead attorney, told the state-court jury in Galveston during opening statements Wednesday. The trial is expected to last five weeks.
BP intentionally vented at least 500,000 pounds of toxic chemicals, including benzene, from a faulty refinery unit in Texas City to a flare the company knew was incapable of destroying the toxins, Buzbee said in an interview before the trial. He claims London-based BP would have lost more than $20 million if it had shut the unit down during repairs.
“This case is not an attack on refineries, not an attack on oil companies,” he told the jury Wednesday. “This case is about a company that flouts the rules, that does what it chooses and darn the consequences.”
BP denies anyone was injured by emissions from the refinery, which was later sold.
The refinery’s flare was highly efficient during the incident and destroyed or dispersed virtually all toxins vented to it, Damond Mace, one of BP’s trial attorneys told jurors Wednesday. There is “a huge difference” between what is pumped out of the top of the stack and what, “if anything, comes down to the ground,” he said.
Fence-line and community air monitors showed no elevated readings of any hazardous gasses during April and May of 2010, and no regulatory air standards were violated, he said.
“Your job is to decide if the ground-level air concentrations that reached these four plaintiffs on these days from the flaring of that hydrocarbon stream caused them any injury,” Mace told jurors.
Kenneth Tekell, another BP attorney, told the jury of 10 women and six men, including four alternates, that the residents at trial suffered from “ordinary diseases of life,” like itchy eyes, runny noses and temporary respiratory or stomach ailments.
“He’d have had that sore throat and swollen gland whether BP was flaring or not,” Tekell said of one plaintiff, who BP said it believes had a throat infection at the time.
Buzbee said each plaintiff showed symptoms “absolutely consistent with chemical exposure” that may cause them serious health problems in the future.
“What value do you place on someone breathing these chemicals that were purposely released” for more than 40 days? Buzbee asked the jury. “No one’s missing a leg, and no one’s dead. But this ain’t right. This should never happen again anywhere, and BP still has refineries in the U.S.”
BP was slow to inform state regulators of the leak and underreported the volume of toxins released during the 40-day incident, Buzbee told jurors.
“The wanton poisoning of an entire community is not an acceptable business practice,” Buzbee said in court papers. He asked the jury Wednesday to punish BP for its conduct.
The Texas City emissions incident overlapped the start of the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill, which began when a rig exploded while drilling a BP well off the Louisiana coast. BP has paid more than $30 billion in spill-related cleanup costs, damages and fines, with thousands of damages claims remaining to be resolved in a separate proceeding in federal court in New Orleans.
BP Products North America sold the Texas City refinery to Marathon Petroleum Corp. in a transaction announced last October. The site was the scene of a 2005 explosion that killed 15 workers and resulted in payments of $2.1 billion to local residents and businesses harmed by the blast.
The company agreed in 2011 to pay Texas $50 million to settle air-pollution violations at the plant from 2005 through 2011, including the release of about 500,000 pounds of harmful chemicals during the 2010 flaring incident.
The case is In re MDL Litigation Regarding Texas City Refinery Ultracracker Emission Event Litigation, 10-UC-0001, Texas 56th Judicial District Court (Galveston).
Photo credit: Bloomberg News