A Great Week for Workers: Nardelli and Lord Browne

In the midst of all the bad news for workers and the non-rich that’s been the norm since the Republicans took over, you will sometimes find, buried behind the stories of worker deaths and collusion between the Bush Administration and the corporatocracy, a rare item that explains how we finally won one. This has been one of those weeks, an unprecedented week in which we won not one but three times. Four if you count the passage of the minimum wage bill.

The first was the furor that erupted after Home Depot’s CEO, Robert Nardelli, was forced to step down after masterminding a 6% drop in the company’s stock, taking with him a severance package worth over $200Mil. Unlike other such instances of CEO’s running away with $$$Millions of $$$ after trashing the companies they headed without a peep from anyone, this one wasn’t ignored. Instead, both press and public reacted angrily, heaping scorn, derision, and vituperation all over him in a sort of verbal tar-and-feathering. The reaction was a clear sign that after a quarter-century of rip-offs, thievery, corruption, and greed, we’ve had enough. Some of us have waited a long time for that day.

The second was even sweeter: some of HD’s investors decided not to just sit by while Nardelli picked their pockets and pranced home in broad daylight thumbing his nose at them. They’re suing him to recover at least some of that swag. They may not win – after all, the package was written into Nardelli’s contract, and the contract was approved by HD’s BOD – but it’s significant that they’ve taken the step. Corporate executives have been stealing from their company’s investors for years and getting away with it. They are now on notice that that situation isn’t going to continue. Mass Rep Barney Frank, new Chair of House Financial Services Committee, wants to hold hearings on a bill that will force corporate boards to go to their shareholders for approval of executive pay packages.

But the third is perhaps the most meaningful of all. British Petroleum’s CEO, Lord John Browne, has just been fired.

Two years ago, John Browne — also known as Lord Browne of Madingley — was the toast of the corporate world and had entered popular culture for making BP stand not only for an oil company but also for a firm looking “beyond petroleum.”

Since then, Browne’s reputation has been tarnished by a series of debacles — a refinery explosion in Texas that killed 15 people, leaky Alaska pipelines that shut down the biggest U.S. oil field, costly delays in a big Gulf of Mexico production platform and U.S. government accusations of cornering the propane market and manipulating gasoline futures contracts.

Yesterday, BP’s board of directors announced that the man picked three times as Britain’s most-admired executive was finished.

Lord Browne’s management style has been known chiefly for its lack of concern with anything except the bottom line, including worker safety and environmental safety. The saga of the BP explosion two years ago is a macrocosm of the corporate attitudes and practices that have plagued the world for a generation, bringing us hundreds of worker deaths and maimings and pushing the environment to the brink of destruction. That a CEO of his power and prestige could be taken down as a result of public pressure despite his success is going to send shockwaves through the corporatocracy that will take years to subside. No one more richly deserves the honor.

Both the explosion and the Alaskan oil spill were endemic to corporate thinking. Both happened because Browne demanded a corporate culture in which profit was the one and only operations factor to be considered and “cheap” was the order of the day. Requests to spend money to repair the pipeline when it became obvious they were needed were rejected out of hand, and workers later were found to have complained that rust-retardent chemicals normally used to prevent corrosion had been cut back to save on costs and warned that that would have the effect of shortening the normal lifespan of the pipe. They were ignored.

But it was the infamous explosion in their Texas plant that exposed Browne’s callous disregard for human life, an attitude that arose as a direct consequence of his worship of profit. I’m not going to go through the whole sad story here – you can read it for yourself in the invaluable Jordan Barab’s series on his website, Confined Space – but I do want to take you through just a few of the steps that reveal how corporate managements choose their priorities and how they “explain” those priorities when the result is worker death and ecological destruction. First, here’s Browne immediately after the explosion when he flew in to see the damage for himself.

Browne promised to help the families of both contractors and employees and said BP will leave nothing undone to get to the cause.”We all want to know what happened and why,” he said.

Uh-huh. Well, now we know.

In 1992, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration cited BP predecessor Amoco Oil Co. for using equipment, including a splitter — the same type of machinery at the center of the current investigation — in a manner “that allowed toxic gases to vent to the atmosphere … thus exposing employees to flammable or toxic gases.” The four-month investigation was part of a broader initiative launched by OSHA after a string of fires at industrial facilities.

To correct the problem, OSHA recommended that Amoco reconfigure the unit so that liquids and vapors discharged go to a flare, or set up air monitors. The company settled the case, which cited 15 violations and fined the company initially $50,000 in 1994, according to OSHA records, but it is unclear whether they followed the agency’s recommendation, since it is not required.

They didn’t.

In this case, when a distillation unit called the raffinate splitter overpressurized, it dumped hydrocarbons into a tower called the blowdown drum. This was normal, but also the first problem. The blowdown drum was an antiquated system dating from the 1950’s, replaced years ago in most refineries by a flare system that harmlessly burned off the hydrocarbons. In fact, as far back as 1992, OSHA warned the plant to replace the blowdown drum.

The problem with the blowdown drum is that you can’t let it overflow. A first layer of protection would be indicators showing how full the blowdown drum tower was getting. In case this didn’t work or someone didn’t notice it, a second layer of protection might be an audible alarm to warn operators that something was wrong. A third level might be some kind of automatic shutdown mechanism. In Texas City, neither of these first two basic layers of protection were functioning. The blowdown drum was only supposed to be filled to the 10 foot mark before the alarms went off, but while the indicators were showing normal levels and the alarms were silent, the actual level reached 120 feet.

What they did do was start an immediate PR campaign that blamed the workers who were killed.

According to an Interim Report issued by BP yesterday, the Texas City refinery incident occurred in the isomerization (ISOM) unit. A processing tower, called the raffinate splitter that housed hydrocarbon liquid and vapor, overfilled and overheated. The liquid and vapor mix was overpressurized, flooded into an adjacent Blowdown Drum & Stack, overflowed and escaped into the atmosphere around the unit. The resulting vapor cloud was then ignited by a still-unknown source.The basic message of the press conference was that worker error was to blame:

If ISOM unit managers had properly supervised the startup or if ISOM unit operators had followed procedures or taken corrective action earlier, the explosion would not have occurred, the investigation team said….. “The mistakes made during the startup of this unit were surprising and deeply disturbing. The result was an extraordinary tragedy we didn’t foresee,” said Ross Pillari, president of BP Products North America, Inc.

This is SOP for corporations after any disaster for which their own failures are responsible. It is what BP has done all over the world anytime their penchant for using untrained workers (training costs $$$), outmoded equipment (new equipment costs $$$), and rejecting needed repairs (repairs cost $$$) resulted in catastrophe and more death. Those policies make Browne is directly responsible for the murder of the 15 workers who died in the explosion. He ought to be going to prison. He won’t, but at least he will no longer be in a position to kill anybody else.

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One Response

  1. […] month, the BP Board fired Lord John Browne, the man whose Jack Welch-like stinginess (they don’t normally worship the bottom line in […]

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