By T.J. Aulds
TEXAS CITY — More than 50,000 people have sued BP over a 2010 emissions event at its Texas City refinery that sent more than 500,000 pounds of chemicals into the air.
Court officials said the number of plaintiffs tops the number who filed legal action against the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association after Hurricane Ike.
From April 6 to May 16, 2010, a problem with a compressor on the refinery’s ultracracker unit resulted in increased flaring for 40 days as the unit continued to operate. During that time, more than 500,000 pounds of chemicals, including carbon monoxide and benzene, were released into the air.
A state investigation and subsequent lawsuit found that BP’s decision to keep operating the unit and flare led to a violation of the state’s air quality laws, and the company paid a $50 million fine in a comprehensive settlement with the state that included past air emission violations.
According to records from the Galveston County District Clerk’s Office, BP now faces 53,800 people who claim they suffered ill health effects as a result of the emissions event. While the cases have been clumped together in blocks of 100 to create 538 cases, the number of people suing the company eclipses the number of people who sued TWIA over Ike claims.
District Clerk Doryn Glenn said there were 4,572 Ike cases and most had two plaintiffs. Given that, about 9,100 people sued TWIA, which was considered one of the largest litigation efforts in the county’s courts.
The deadline to file a claim in the BP emissions event passed in May, but most of the cases were filed in early April, Glenn said. The cases are filed in Judge Lonnie Cox’s 56th District Court.
BP maintains the chemicals released during the emissions event did not harm anyone.
“Neither the community air monitoring network nor the BP fence-line monitors showed elevated (harmful emission) readings during April and May 2010, and we do not believe that any negative health impacts resulted from flaring at BP’s Texas City Refinery during this period,” BP spokesman Michael Marr said. “BP is defending and will continue to defend the lawsuits brought against it concerning this matter.”
Because of the volume of people suing BP, Glenn said the district clerk’s office asked Cox to allow the plaintiff’s attorneys to file the lawsuits in groups of 100. That process has helped the caseload management system the county uses, Glenn said.
Tony Buzbee, whose firm has the largest volume of cases, said that all clients were screened before they were allowed to join the lawsuit.
“Our team screened each client prior to filing and encouraged court dismissal of any claimant who wasn’t in Texas City during the relevant time frame,” Buzbee said. “Indeed, as liaison counsel, we are working with BP to ensure that all claimants who have filed are proper claimants. We expect those exposed to be paid fairly by BP either voluntarily or by verdict and anyone not actually exposed denigrates the case of those who actually suffered.”
A trial date has not been set, but it’s possible a test trial for the first 100 plaintiffs could be held before the end of the year, Buzbee said. In some cases, a judge could allow a test trial where multiple plaintiffs are making similar claims.
A ruling in that case would be similar to a precedent, often resulting in quick settlement agreements.