BUSINESS ANALYSIS: BP Faces Litigation Risk after Massive Refinery Fire ; Lord Browne Flies to US to Promise Tighter Safety after Explosion Kills 15 in Texas

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AN EXPLOSION and fire at BP's giant oil refinery in Texas killed 15 workers, injured 100 and shook already jittery oil markets around the world.

The company's chief executive, Lord Browne of Madingley, flew to Texas yesterday to meet victims and families bereaved by the blast and survey the damage for himself. He would have been aware that the oil giant could face a flurry of litigation if found negligent.

The huge blast on Wednesday shot flames high into the sky, forced schoolchildren to cower under their desks and showered ash and chunks of charred metal around the area. Windows rattled more than five miles away from the 1,200- acre plant near Houston. BP said that terrorism or other "external influences" were "not a focus of our investigation" into the blast.

The Texas City site, which is a mile long and half a mile wide, employs 1,800 people, plus contractors. The explosion happened in a part of the plant used to boost the octane level of gasoline, a facility that was being brought back into service after a period of routine maintenance.

The accident follows other recent incidents at the plant, which processes up to 470,000 barrels of crude oil a day, providing 3 per cent of the US supply of petrol ("gasoline").

In September last year, two workers died after being scolded by hot water that had escaped from a pipe. In May, an employee died from a fall at the plant, while in March another explosion rocked the site - that accident caused no injuries but led to a $66,000 fine for BP.

Wenceslado de la Cerda, a 50-year-old retired firefighter, said the blast shook the ground, rattled windows and knocked ceiling panels to the floor. "Basically, it was one big boom," he said. "It's a shame that people have to get killed and hurt trying to make a dollar in these plants, but that's part of reality."

Lord Browne said the oil giant would carry out any safety reforms necessary. …