TEXAS CITY, Texas — About 2,200 people are part of a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday morning over the release of more than 500,000 pounds of pollutants — including high levels of benzene — into the air after a unit failure at BP’s Texas City refinery.
The lawsuit filed by Friendswood attorney Tony Buzbee seeks $10 billion in damages in the release of pollutants between April 6 and May 16 when the refinery ultracracker’s hydrogen compressor went offline.
Buzbee said his clients include contract workers who were at the refinery and residents who live within a mile of the refinery. He said he expects to add another 4,000 clients to that list by week’s end.
The lawsuit was filed in the federal court in Galveston.
Buzbee said his clients have experienced "the typical exposure symptoms, sinus and eye issues, coughing, feeling nauseous, feeling lethargic — all the common benzene exposure symptoms."
According to BP’s filings with state regulators, about 17,000 pounds of benzene were released — about 400 pounds a day.
Benzene has been linked to some forms of cancer, according to U.S. Health and Human Services records.
BP maintains the emissions did not harm the community.
"During the Ultracracker compressor outage of April-May, the community air monitoring network did not show elevated readings," BP spokesman Michael Marr said. "Similarly, the site’s recently enhanced fence line monitoring did not show a ground level impact throughout the event."
Buzbee said, "I don’t know what’s going on here. The amount of people saying they are experiencing symptoms is staggering. We started getting calls in April, but I was turning them down. When (The Daily News) first reported it (on June 5), the calls really started to come in, and I decided to take another look."
Buzbee’s firm isn’t the only one planning legal action. For the past two weeks, attorneys have set up shop at store fronts to sign up clients, and Buzbee plans a town-hall meeting tonight in Texas City.
Attorney Chad Pinkerton said he has about 6,000 clients, while James Nebout, of Burwell and Nebout said he had hundreds of additional clients. Houston attorney Clement Aldridge was also in town meeting with potential clients last week, but he did not confirm how many people he had signed up.
Based on initial numbers provided by the attorneys, the number of people seeking some sort of legal action against BP could be about 25 percent of Texas City’s population.
Not all of the clients have been confirmed to have had medical symptoms, the attorneys said.
Nebout said his firm started getting calls in April before the emissions were made public.
"These are some very serious symptoms we are seeing in our clients, and you look at their medical records and say something has to have caused this," Nebout said.
Pinkerton said some of his clients have shown signs of long-term health problems they blame on the emissions.
BP is bracing for the legal fight.
"Based on our understanding of the facts and circumstances, BP does not believe there is any basis to pay claims in connection with this event," Marr said. "BP is not taking or paying such claims."
In July, a Texas Commission on Environmental Quality investigation found the release was an "excessive emissions event" and then referred it to the attorney general’s office last week, agency spokeswoman Andrea Morrow said.
What Was Released?
• BP estimated 37,519 pounds of nitrogen oxides, 17,000 pounds of benzene, 189,000 pounds of carbon monoxide, 61,000 pounds of propane, 34,645 pounds of isobutane and about 160,840 pounds of other emissions were released between April 6 and May 16.
• The daily release of benzene was 40 times the state reportable levels.
• State law requires 10 pounds or more of benzene and 200 pounds or more of nitrogen oxides during a 24-hour period must be reported to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.
SOURCES: BP, TCEQ
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