BP appoints panel to assess safety

HOUSTON (AP) – Former Secretary of State James A. Baker III will head a panel investigating safety and management oversight at BP Products North America Inc. following a refinery explosion and fire that killed 15 people and injured 170, the company announced Monday.

The Texas City blast in March was one of a series of fires and other safety problems at BP.

“We are determined to do everything possible to prevent a tragedy like this from ever happening again by ensuring that safety practices at our operations are effective and comprehensive,” BP chief executive John Browne said in a statement. “This inquiry is a vital part of that effort.”

The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board urged BP in August to hire outside experts to look at the company’s oversight of safety management systems, similar to the investigation into NASA following the space shuttle Columbia tragedy.

Both the Houston law firm and public policy institute that bear Baker’s name have financial ties to BP, and Baker and his wife, Susan, sold 675 shares of BP stock as he agreed to oversee the panel.

“I’m determined that this is going to be a transparent operation,” Baker said Monday. “Anybody that thinks that I would jeopardize a public service career, such I as I have had … to go in the tank for something like this, I don’t think they understand how important one’s reputation is.”

Baker, a senior partner at the Baker Botts law firm founded by his grandfather, was White House chief of staff and treasury secretary in the Reagan administration and secretary of state in the first Bush administration.

Baker Botts has represented BP, accounting for less than 1 percent of the firm’s revenues over the past five years, the law firm said. It also noted that Baker has not been personally involved in any BP legal matters.

Baker is also honorary chairman of the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University, but takes no salary for his role. The institute has received $215,000 since 1993 for its charitable activities from BP and Amoco, which merged in 1998.

Baker said Browne first contacted him about overseeing the panel in August.

Baker said he warned Browne that “if I chair this panel, we are going to conduct an aggressive inquiry and we are going to let the chips fall where they may.” Baker recalled Browne replied, “We would want nothing less.'”

Baker said he is convinced BP wants a review that is thorough, transparent and objective “because they are tired of what has happened.”

“I’ve seen too much tragedy in the high risk industries down there and this may provide us with an opportunity to maybe do a little bit about that or make a difference,” Baker said.

BP plans to issue a final report by next month on the March 23 explosion. The independent panel has been asked to complete its work within a year and to make its recommendations public.

Other members of the 11-member panel, to which BP plans to appoint a union representative, include retired Adm. Skip Bowman, president of the Nuclear Energy Institute; former U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton; Dennis Hendershot, of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers; and Nancy Leveson, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who focuses on accident investigation and modeling.

Each of the panel members will receive $100,000 for their work, BP said.

“When completed, we believe this independent review and report can provide invaluable information to industries that have the potential for catastrophic accidents,” said Chemical Safety Board chairwoman Carolyn W. Merritt.

BP has set aside $700 million to compensate victims of the March explosion and says it has taken responsibility for management failures and employee mistakes that contributed to or caused the explosion.

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined BP $21.3 million as part of a resolution of 300 separate alleged OSHA safety regulation violations.

The Chemical Safety Board plans to issue the preliminary findings of its investigation into the March explosion Thursday during a public meeting in Texas City.

There have been several other fires and a high pressure gas valve leak at various BP facilities since the March explosion.

In July there was a hydrogen fire in another part of the Texas City refinery. The next month a hole developed in a valve that handles high-pressure gas and oil, prompting a community order for residents to stay in their homes. Also in August, there was a process-related fire at BP’s plastics subsidiary in Alvin.

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