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Houston Chronicle: Lawyer in BP case ordered to turn over evidence

Oct. 11, 2006, 6:50PM
Copyright 2006 Houston Chronicle

Suggesting that the criminal probe into BP is gaining momentum, federal prosecutors this week issued a wide-ranging subpoena to a lawyer representing a woman whose parents died in the 2005 blast at the company’s Texas City refinery, the lawyer said today.

Brent Coon of Beaumont said the U.S. attorney’s office in Houston has ordered him to turn over all of the evidence he has gathered so far — dozens of depositions and hundreds of thousands of documents — in preparation for a November trial in state court.

“We have been subpoenaed to turn over all of our underlying documents,” he said.

Included in those, he added, are the applications and other documents related to permits BP received from the Texas Commision on Environmental Quality to operate the equipment that ultimately exploded, killing 15 and injuring scores more.

Coon has said that those documents contain evidence that BP misled the state agency in order to win permits to operate the blowdown drum and vent stack associated with the refinery’s isomerization unit.

A spokesman with the U.S. attorney’s office here declined to comment, saying the agency does not confirm or deny the existence of federal probes.

“I can’t comment on the purported statements of others,” said John Yembrick, a spokesman for the agency.

BP spokesman Neil Chapman said the company continues to cooperate with all authorities who have been investigating the March 23, 2005, explosion.

The Justice Department began its investigation after the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in September levied a record $21.3 million fine against BP and slapped it with more than 300 violations.

Local FBI agents and investigators with the Environmental Protection Agency’s environmental crimes division also are said to be heavily involved in the federal probe.

Coon represents Eva Rowe, the daughter of James and Linda Rowe, who died in the blast. Hers is the only case involving a fatality that has not settled out of court.

BP in the past 18 months has settled more than 1,000 claims against the company, Chapman said. The company has set aside $1.2 billion to pay for those claims.

Also today, Coon told state District Judge Susan Criss that BP has not turned over a critical diagram that should have been attached to one of its permit applications in 2003.

That diagram is crucial, Coon said, because BP had indicated to the TCEQ that it has installed a flare on the blowdown drum when it had not.

Federal accident investigators have said that had the equipment included a flare, the hydrocarbons that ignited and caused the fatal blast likely would have safely burned away and lives would not have been lost.

BP lawyer Jim Galbraith told Criss that BP did not have the diagram, saying: “They have alleged we misled the state agency. We have not.”

But Criss ordered the company to produce the missing diagram anyway, and to pay Coon’s costs for trying to track it down.

Coon said he has spent “hundreds of thousands of dollars” trying to obtain documents regarding BP’s permiting applications.

But, more valuable than that, he said, was the judge’s ruling that the jury can hold the missing document against BP at trial in November. That could be enough evidence to allow the jury to consider awarding punitive damages beyond the state-mandated cap of $750,000 plus twice actual damages, he said.

Also today, Criss ordered BP chief executive John Browne to give a deposition in the case, set to go to trial Nov. 8.

BP’s Chapman said the company will appeal that ruling.

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