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Sen. Franken asks BP to explain OSHA violations

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The Center for Public Integrity’s May 16 story detailing hundreds of flagrant safety violations at two BP refineries continues to reverberate in Congress.

During a Senate subcommittee hearing last Thursday, Democratic Sen. Al Franken repeatedly cited the story’s key finding: that BP refineries in Texas and Ohio accounted for 97 percent of “egregious willful” or “willful” citations issued to all U.S. refineries by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration between June 2007 and February 2010. The Minnesota senator pressed the hearing’s only witness — Steve Flynn, the oil company’s vice president of health, safety, security and environment — to explain why BP had received 760 egregious willful citations. “That’s a pretty hard statistic to believe,” Franken said, according to a transcript of the hearing.

BP’s Flynn replied that the company was “disappointed” with the citations because it believed it had come into compliance with OSHA orders after its refinery in Texas City, Texas, exploded in March 2005, killing 15 workers and injuring 170. The number of citations was high, he said, because OSHA wrote up BP every time it found an alleged safety violation rather than issuing a single citation for all violations of a particular rule. “All of that said, we are absolutely committed to resolving those differences with OSHA to [fix] the problems,” Flynn added.

Franken, however, wasn’t done.

“I take your word for it, I guess, that OSHA somehow treated your willful and egregious violations differently than others,” Franken said later in the hearing. He read the definition of an egregious willful citation – “intentional disregard for employee safety and health” – and asked Flynn: “Would you say that having intentional disregard for safety and health is a sign of a culture of safety? Or would you say that’s maybe the opposite?”

Flynn reiterated that BP was disappointed with the OSHA citations, to which Franken replied, “You see, you said that every time. You’re very disappointed. Were you alarmed?” Flynn responded that the company was “absolutely committed” to resolving safety issues at its refineries. “I’ll take that as a no,” Franken said.

Last fall, OSHA proposed a record $87 million penalty against BP for alleged violations at the Texas City refinery – violations that, according to regulators, reflected the same sorts of lapses that led to the 2005 blast. The agency proposed a $3 million penalty this year for similar violations at BP’s refinery in Toledo, Ohio.

BP is contesting all 862 citations – 829 of which were classified as willful or egregious willful – issued to the two refineries.

Jordan Barab, deputy assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health, told the Center on Monday that the agency is still negotiating with the giant oil company over how much of the $90 million in proposed penalties it will actually pay. The discussions are going “very well,” Barab said, declining to elaborate or suggest a time frame for a possible settlement.

Asked if BP is sincere in its expressed desire to resolve safety problems, Barab said, “When we meet with their executives, they are very cooperative. But the proof is in the pudding – what we see on the ground.”