The Justice Department has decided not to revoke probation that the government had imposed on BP as part of an agreement to address safety violations at the company's Texas City refinery, site of a deadly 2005 explosion. The decision comes despite a government warning earlier this year that it might revoke the company's probation if BP failed to address the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s continuing concerns about safety at the refinery.
Since a blast at the refinery in 2005 killed 15 workers, BP has faced both criminal and civil actions for violations identified in investigations after the accident. As part of its plea agreement to resolve the criminal charges it faced after the 2005 blast, BP was given three years' probation.
Some of the details of the Justice Department’s decision not to revoke the company’s probation are still murky, but according to the Houston Chronicle, a decision to do so would have opened the company up to further criminal prosecution.
Attorneys for the families of victims have advocated such an action for some time, especially after the company’s Gulf disaster and its 40-day release of toxic chemicals from the Texas City refinery—both of which occurred over the summer and still await resolution.
The backstory behind the problems at Texas City, as we’ve noted, is extensive. After the 2005 blast, BP entered into a settlement agreement to address a number of items flagged as potential safety hazards at the refinery—items it had four years to correct. In an agreement with U.S. prosecutors negotiated in 2007 and approved by a federal judge in March 2009, BP was fined $50 million and put on probation.
Later that year, a civil investigation by OSHA found BP to be noncompliant with the terms of the settlement. On top of that, the federal government’s workplace safety agency also found hundreds of new violations, and issued an $87 million fine for both the new violations and the violations of the settlement.
Then, in January of this year, the Department of Justice warned BP that “if it failed to resolve the allegations of non-compliance to OSHA’s satisfaction, the government might seek revocation and/or extension of probation,” according to letters issued this month by Justice Department attorney Daniel Dooher, and first reported by Truthout.org.
But in those letters, the Justice Department backed off that warning, saying that it “is not seeking a revocation or extension of probation at this time,” and is instead giving BP more time to correct the hundreds of problems that have plagued its Texas City refinery and caused the deaths of 19 people since 2005.
BP has disputed altogether that it was in violation of its original settlement agreement, even as it agreed last month to settle OSHA’s allegations of continued noncompliance.
“Our settlement agreement does not admit any violation of the previous agreement and, in fact, specifically denies that BP has failed to comply with the previous agreement,” BP spokesman Scott Dean told us in an e-mailed statement in August. (As we noted, BP has not yet paid the full amount for its 2009 fines from OSHA, but has thus far paid $50 million for the uncorrected violations and is still litigating over the $30 million penalty assessed for the new violations.)
In the two Justice Department letters, the goverment said that because BP paid the $50 million fine to OSHA last month and entered into a new agreement to address OSHA’s safety concerns at the refinery, the department would accept the terms of the new agreement, which gives BP until March 12, 2012 to meet the full requirements of the original settlement. According to the Justice Department letters, BP agreed with the government’s assessment.
BP did not return requests for comment from Bloomberg, Truthout, or ProPublica regarding the Justice Department’s decision not to revoke its probation.