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Lord Browne's oil daze

It took more than a year for a dogged Texan lawyer, Brent Coon coon: see raccoon. , to get the former BP boss Lord Browne to answer questions on the legal record about the Texas City oil disaster. It turns out that the noble lord's knowledge of the tragedy was fuzzy fuzz·y  
adj. fuzz·i·er, fuzz·i·est
1. Covered with fuzz.

2. Of or resembling fuzz.

3. Not clear; indistinct: a fuzzy recollection of past events.

, to say the least.

A transcript was made public this week of an hour-long deposition given by Browne about the notorious 2005 tragedy at BP's Texas City refinery in which a group of exhausted labourers overfilled overfilled,
adj See overextended.
 a dilapidated vertical drum with chemicals, causing an explosion which showered burning liquid over accommodation trailers nearby. The blast shattered shat·ter  
v. shat·tered, shat·ter·ing, shat·ters
1. To cause to break or burst suddenly into pieces, as with a violent blow.

 windows on houses three quarters of a mile away.

The most common phrase in the 76-page deposition? It's a toss-up between "I was not aware" and "I don't recall".

The fire, which killed 15 people and was America's worst industrial accident for a generation, took place on Browne's watch. The day after it happened, he flew straight to the plant to give a press conference in which he declared that it was the worst tragedy he had known in 38 years at BP.

"The full resources of BP will be made available to investigate the causes of this tragedy," Browne told local people. "There is no stone left unturned in making sure all events are investigated and remediation is done after the event."

Since then, all events have duly been investigated thoroughly – and the findings were often damning about BP's internal safety culture. But Browne seems to have stayed oddly detached from such revelations, even before his resignation in May last year for lying to a court about his personal life.

While Browne was still in situ In place. When something is "in situ," it is in its original location. , the US Chemical Safety Board published its findings – which said three of the people involved in the accident had worked 12-hour shifts for more than 30 days on the trot trot

one of the natural gaits of the horse; a two-beat gait on alternating diagonals.

collected trot
the head is held well in and the horse is not permitted to fully extend its limbs.

"Warning signs of a possible disaster were present for several years, but company officials did not intervene effectively to prevent it," said the board, which found "organisational and safety deficiencies at all levels of BP corporation".

This is strong stuff – but Browne wasn't aware just how strong because he never bothered to read the report. In his deposition, he told Coon that its contents had been "described to me in a meeting", adding: "It was very, very long, I believe."

It was indeed quite long – 327 pages, to be precise. And it's clear that Browne has little grasp of the contents. When Coon asked him if he was aware that BP had been overworking staff at Texas City, Browne replied: "I wasn't aware of that at all."

Coon pressed on: "You were not aware that the person charged with operating the gauges that day had worked 30 days consecutively, 12 hours or longer shifts?" Browne answered: "No, I wasn't aware of that."

He obviously wasn't reading daily newspapers either – because The Times and The Guardian both reported this fairly crucial detail.

BP empanelled an independent body of its own to examine its safety culture, headed by the former US secretary of state James Baker. The veteran American politician wasn't entirely free of BP-related ties – Baker is a partner at a Houston law firm, Baker Botts Baker Botts L.L.P. is a major international law firm of about 800 attorneys, with a long history, significant political connections, and a long list of corporate clients. History , which has done work for BP and his Baker Institute think-tank had put BP's then head of refining refining, any of various processes for separating impurities from crude or semifinished materials. It includes the finer processes of metallurgy, the fractional distillation of petroleum into its commercial products, and the purifying of cane, beet, and maple sugar , John Manzoni, in charge of an energy taskforce.

"I would imagine it's not possible to find anyone who has done nothing – who has done absolutely nothing with BP. The question is one of degree," Browne said in his deposition, defending the panel's independence.

In the event, Baker proved to be both independent and scathing, describing deficiencies in "process safety" at BP and finding a culture in which "serious deviations from safe operating practices" are tolerated.

Browne is a bit hazy haz·y  
adj. haz·i·er, haz·i·est
1. Marked by the presence of haze; misty: hazy sunshine.

 on these findings too, though. He did at least read the Baker report but 13 months later, he couldn't recall much about it, telling Coon: "I am aware of – I can't recall, but I read the Baker panel report. I can't recall its content now. So I am aware – I was aware at one stage what was in that."

Oil is a dangerous business and tragic accidents happen from time to time. But it's hard to overstate just how high feelings run in parts of America on the subject of Texas City, which countless reports have suggested was an avoidable tragedy. Browne got a taste of that anger at the end of his deposition, when he was handed an envelope from Eva Rowe, who lost her parents in the disaster. The envelope contained pictures taken in a morgue morgue (morg) a place where dead bodies may be kept for identification or until claimed for burial.

 of the bodies of her mother and father.

According to the Houston Chronicle, more than 4,000 blast-related legal claims have arisen from the accident. BP has been working its way through them and after the settlement of a batch in mid-trial this week, just seven more are outstanding.

Coon, who has represented scores of injured in·jure  
tr.v. in·jured, in·jur·ing, in·jures
1. To cause physical harm to; hurt.

2. To cause damage to; impair.

 victims and bereaved be·reaved  
Suffering the loss of a loved one: the bereaved family.

One or those bereaved: The bereaved has entered the church.
 families, bowed out of the saga this week. He described it as "the most overwhelming case I've been this deeply involved in during my 20-year legal career".

Three years on, it's hard to escape the conclusion that the Texas City disaster remains a dark stain Stain (microbiology)

Any colored, organic compound, usually called dye, used to stain tissues, cells, cell components, or cell contents. The dye may be natural or synthetic. The object stained is called the substrate.
 on BP's reputation and an ugly tarnish tarnish,
n 1. surface discoloration or loss of luster by metals. Under oral conditions, it often results from hard and soft deposits.
2. a chemical process by which a metal surface is discolored or its luster destroyed.
 over Browne's legacy.
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Date:Jul 25, 2008
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