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Budget cuts contributed to BP blast, alleges victims’ lawyer

A lawyer acting for victims of one of the biggest disasters in the history of the American oil industry alleges that budget cuts ordered by a British boss contributed to the explosion.

Brent Coon says BP head Lord Browne of Madingley has so far refused to give evidence, but his order to slash fixed operating costs around the world by 25% compromised safety at the Texas City plant.

In March 2005 a blast claimed the lives of 15 workers and injured hundreds more during maintenance work in an area which boosts the octane level of petrol.

The explosion led to a 21.4 million fine – the largest by the US’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSAH) – which said it discovered more than 300 wilful or serious violations of federal health and safety regulations.

Last month a contractor who was making safety improvements also died.

Today Mr Coon said he hoped the Court of Appeals in Houston, Texas, will rule he is allowed to interview the executive he describes as group chief executive Lord Browne’s number two, John Mazoni, on Thursday.

He is in London to interview Mike Hoffman, global vice-president, BP Refining, tomorrow and said: “We would like to take the deposition of Lord Browne, but we do not believe he would reciprocate.

“I have a strong personal belief that Lord Browne has a wealth of information associated to the history of under-investment at this particular facility as well as business strategy that led to under-investment at this facility. As well as others, we have requested that deposition.

“The request has been denied.”

He added: “Hopefully we will obtain sufficient information from Mr Hoffman to take Mr Manzoni and Lord Browne.”

He claimed the unit was a “timebomb” which had had “quick fix” repairs, adding: “The under-investment was further compromised when Lord Browne after the merger with Amoco in 1999 issued a command that all the refineries reduce operating budgets by 25%.

“This compromised the integrity of all BP facilities internationally.”

The cuts led to management not cutting the grass and even failing to restock first-aid kits in the units, Mr Coon said.

“We know in this case this plant manager took it as a command and they cut everything from suits to nuts,” he said.

As a result, morale declined, safety declined and infrastructure rusted. The plant became a rustbucket and a timebomb and everybody out there knew it.”

A criminal investigation is under way into the incident by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Justice, he said.

“Our investigation has been consistent with others by independent federal authorities, and shows that BP had knowledge in advance that an explosion of this nature was likely to occur.” he said.

“They had knowledge from their own employees, from their own management, they knew from outside auditors and they had knowledge from the very nature of the equipment itself.”

Mr Coon represents some 150 victims and their families. The first of the civil cases will be heard next month at the district court in Galveston, Texas, and will be that of Eva Rowe’s parents, who both died in the explosion. Her father James was a supervisor, while mother Linda, a former schoolteacher, was the tool room attendant for contractor JE Merit.

Mr Coon says he anticipates the company will apologise for the incident, for which they have already admitted responsibility, “in part to escape punitive damages”.

Ms Rowe, 22, said: “It has been very, very hard. My parents were my best friends. My parents were the only two friends I could really trust my whole life. It has been really hard to be without them. They were all I had.”

She added: “I don’t want my parents’ death to be in vain, so we have to do something to change things for the better in all petro-chemical industries for safety. If we can’t it will be a death in vain, and it can’t be right. We have to make a difference.”

Last month, the oil giant reported profits of

11.38 billion (£6.14 billion) for the half year to the end of June, up from

10.47 billion last year.

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