Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Speech to AIChE - Southern California June 17, 2008

Mr. Sowell was the speaker at the June 17, 2008 dinner meeting of the Southern California Section of American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) in Montebello, California. Presentation slides and a transcript will be posted on this blog afterward.


Legal Aspects of the March 23, 2005 Explosion at BP's Texas City Refinery
by Roger E. Sowell, Esq.

The deadly explosion of March 23, 2005 killed 15 and injured 170 others. This explosion has reportedly cost BP more than $2.1 billion in legal settlements. Additional millions will be or have been spent to repair the damaged refinery units.

The explosion was caused by a series of errors while starting up a distillation tower at the C5/C6 Isomerization Unit following a scheduled shutdown for maintenance. The presentation reviews the events of the startup, and other factors that contributed to the deaths and injuries.

Next, the legal setting at this refinery is outlined, including several legal theories of liability. These include the torts of negligence and wrongful death, violations of Texas and Federal environmental laws, and criminal violations of the Clean Air Act. The important differences in Texas laws and California are presented.

Next, the presentation covers important actions taken by Federal agencies as a result of this explosion, and that affect refineries.

To conclude, several do's and don'ts are given. Designers and operators of refineries and chemical plants should be aware of these, to enhance process safety.

(Most information presented is taken from public domain sources. Any copyrighted material is used under a fair use exemption to the copyright laws. )

Post-speech comments by Mr. Sowell:

I was delighted to speak at the AIChE meeting in Montebello. The audience was wonderful! They were very attentive for the entire one hour of the presentation, and asked excellent questions afterward for almost forty-five minutes.

The topic of criminal liability under the Clean Air Act is of great interest not only to engineers, but also to attorneys such as myself who are involved with oil refineries and petrochemical plants. This is a new development in the law, as the prosecution of BP under Section 112 of the Clean Air Act is the first such criminal prosecution. This case should serve as a clear signal to all those in the petroleum industry.

I have made presentations throughout my 30-year career both as an engineer and an attorney, in such far-flung places as Beijing, China, to Gelsenkirchen, Germany, and closer to home in Ponca City, Oklahoma.

In Beijing, I was on Chinese national television as a consulting engineer for their oil refineries. My presentation in Gelsenkirchen was to an audience of PhDs in chemistry and chemical engineering, each of whom had deep experience in ethylene production from steam cracking of naphtha and distillates. In Ponca City, the large audience was comprised of refining process engineers, unit superintendents, and upper management from the U.S. refineries of a major integrated oil company.

see Mr. Sowell's website at

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