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Investigators Probe Cause of Texas Refinery Blast
Thu Mar 24, 6:59 PM ET

TEXAS CITY, Texas (Reuters) - U.S. government investigators descended on BP's Texas City refinery on Thursday, seeking the cause of a powerful explosion that killed 15 people in the plant's third fatal accident in a year.

FBI agents found "no evidence for any criminal or terrorist activity" linked to Wednesday's blast at the third-largest U.S. refinery, FBI spokesman Al Tribble said in Houston.

Two Islamist groups claimed responsibility, but BP also said it had ruled out sabotage at the 71-year-old plant.

BP Chief Executive John Browne told a news conference the blast was the biggest tragedy for BP in his 38 years with the company.

In addition to the dead, 70 workers in the plant and 30 people in nearby areas were injured by the powerful explosion that shook buildings and broke windows several miles away. Eight of the injured were in critical condition, some with burns over 90 percent of their body, a spokesman for the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston said.

Browne, who toured the devastation and met with workers, said the company would conduct its own investigation and would leave "no stone left unturned." He also insisted that the refinery was "very safe."

He said the blast should have no effect on U.S. gasoline supplies and would reduce the damaged refinery's production by no more than 5 percent.

Officials said teams from the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration were starting separate probes at the plant 35 miles southeast of Houston.

"We're all trying to get answers of what caused this and how to prevent in the future the suffering of the trauma of this type of accident," said John Miles, regional administrator for OSHA.

Representatives of the union that represents the refinery workers said they also would investigate.

Experts said litigation, regulatory and reconstruction costs related to the explosion could hit or even exceed $1 billion. But securities analysts said the accident was unlikely to make a significant dent in BP's profitability.

The blast hit the "isomerization" unit used to beef up the octane of gasoline at the BP refinery, which normally produces 3 percent of U.S. gasoline supplies.

In other recent incidents at the plant, a worker died in a fall last May, and two were killed in September when scalding hot water burst from a pipe. An explosion and fire also occurred last March, although no deaths or serious injuries were reported.

Browne said he did not think the mishaps indicated a safety problem at the facility, but acknowledged the company would investigate the possibility of a common thread.

"It is a very safe plant," said Browne, who rushed to Texas following the blast. "I think these events are unrelated, but there have been a few and we regret each one."

Among the costs BP is facing, "There will be worker's compensation issues for both lost time and medical costs," said Christopher Guidette, a vice president at ISO, which provides analysis and support to help insurers manage and assess risk.

Other risk analysts said costs of the incident could exceed $1 billion, though detailed damage assessments were not yet available.

BP's U.S. facilities have endured more than 3,500 accidents since 1990, more than any other company, according to a 2004 report by the Texas Public Interest Research Group.

Eleven of the dead workers were employed by contractor JE Merit Constructors, a subsidiary of California-based Jacobs Engineering Group Inc. .

About 375 employees of Jacobs and its JE Merit subsidiary were doing maintenance work near the refinery's isomerization unit when the blast occurred, Jacobs said.

Galveston County Medical Examiner Stephen Pustilnik said only six of the 15 dead had been identified so far, and most had died of "blunt force trauma."

He said DNA evidence may be required to identify at least five of the bodies.

NYMEX April gasoline last traded at $1.60 per gallon in afternoon trade Thursday after rising to an all-time record of $1.6080 in overnight trading.

BP's London and U.S.-listed shares only slightly underperformed the market following the explosion.

Source: Reuters

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