WASHINGTON (AP) - The widow of a contractor who died in the 2005 BP Texas City refinery explosion pleaded with federal officials Tuesday for tougher enforcement of refinery and chemical plant safety rules.
Sen. Frank Lautenberg said at the hearing that he is writing a bill to strengthen such enforcement—something Linda Hunnings said should have happened when violations were found before the Texas City blast that killed 15 and injured 170.
''They should be able to go in and shut these plants down if they have violations that are dangerous not only to the people that work there, but the surrounding communities,'' Hunnings said.
Hunnings, whose husband Jim was killed, testified that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and Environmental Protection Agency never forced BP to make changes when violations were found. Instead, BP got slaps on the wrist and small fines, she said.
She said her husband knew the BP plant was not a place he wanted to work at because it was old and dilapidated. He thought he would be asked to go to Iraq by his company and when he was asked to go to Texas City, he said, ''Iraq, BP—what a choice,'' Linda Hunnings said.
A BP PLC spokesman did not comment Tuesday. BP officials said in April they were making progress on safety recommendations made in January by an independent panel led by former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker. The panel was created on a recommendation from the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board.
Lautenberg, a Democrat, said he wants to expand the chemical board's authority and increase its budget so it can better investigate chemical, refinery and other accidents as well as investigate regulations and how well they are enforced.
The chemical board issued a critical report on the BP explosion in March after a $2.5 million (euro1.83 million) investigation. The board found that overly lax federal oversight and cost-cutting by BP were factors in the explosion considered the worst U.S. industrial accident since 1990.
The cause of the explosion was the startup of 1950s-era equipment known as blowdown drums that many in the industry had quit using. The board also criticized the close proximity to the equipment of trailers that held many of the workers who were killed.
Carolyn Merritt, chairwoman of the board, said the explosion ''was one of a long series of tragedies at the Texas City facility, where a total of 40 workers died in the past 32 years.''
Merritt said the refinery is regulated by OSHA Process Safety Management and the EPA Risk Management rules. But she said those rules were not enforced at the plant by the agencies.
She and Lautenberg said the chemical board should be modeled after the National Transportation Board.
Merritt also said Congress should make clear the chemical board's authority to preserve evidence, coordinate testing procedures and get access to EPA and OSHA records and personnel.
The board was unable to obtain some EPA records to investigate the explosion or to interview all of the EPA staff, Lautenberg said.
Deborah Dietrich, an EPA official, told Lautenberg the agency did not see where questions on number of inspections and how the EPA targets inspections were relevant to the investigation.
The board has run into other resistance, Lautenberg said. Fire officials kept the board blocked for a week from a paint and ink manufacturing plant explosion that damaged 70 homes in Danvers, Massachusetts.
''Support for the CSB will help save lives, protect communities and reduce costly shutdowns,'' Lautenberg said.