Date: Wed, 7 Mar 2007 07:32:03 -0500
Reply-To: Ralph Stuart <rstuart**At_Symbol_Here**>
Sender: DCHAS-L Discussion List <DCHAS-L**At_Symbol_Here**LIST.UVM.EDU>
From: Ralph Stuart <rstuart**At_Symbol_Here**>
Subject: CJR: When Beats Collide (article about the 2005 Texas City
Comments: To: SAFETY

I thought this article was particularly interesting after the picric  
acid journalism that was discussed here. It's written from a  
journalist's perspective about how unusual the effort to write about  
hazardous materials can be. The thing that causes me the most concern  
is how the mainstream perspective seems to be that "employees took  
their chances every day when they punched the clock."

- Ralph

When Beats Collide

By Lynn J. Cook

Virtually every story can be boiled down to one thing: money. who has  
it? Who doesn’t? Who’s successfully lobbying for it? Who’s  
disenfranchised and deserves more of it? Economics is at the heart of  
most stories worth reporting, and yet it is the one subject  
journalists, collectively, are rarely expected to understand with any  

In journalism school, professors admonish us to “follow the money,”  
but that adage seems tailored only for obvious stories about campaign  
funding or sweetheart zoning deals. In my time as a reporter for The  
Houston Chronicle, my paper’s pages have been filled with features on  
topics that, at first blush, don’t necessarily appear to be economic  
in nature. Hurricane Katrina evacuees and skyrocketing crime. The  
rise of the Minute Men and border patrol issues. The war in Iraq and  
how national security is tied to oil. As a profession, we’re great at  
politics and culture wars so we approach a lot of news from those  
angles. It’s an easier approach, but it ignores the fact that  
politics and culture are inextricably linked with economics. When I  
look at newspapers with a critical eye, I am often left wondering,  
“Where’s the money?” Even the most masterly narratives can fall flat  
when economic issues are conspicuously absent or, worse, given  
superficial treatment.

I saw just how much more comprehensive coverage can be when metro  
reporters and business writers collaborated two years ago after an  
explosion ripped through BP’s Texas City refinery, the nation’s third  
largest, killing fifteen people and injuring 170.

In the moments after the blast, editors treated the story as a  
standard industrial catastrophe. Reporters rushed to the scene and to  
local hospitals to gather information on the blaze, the casualties,  
and the possibility a toxic cloud would descend onto the community.  
It didn’t take long to realize, though, that Texas City would be a  
much longer, more arduous reporting slog, requiring expertise in  
everything from corporate finance to engineering to government  
regulation. After the initial heartrending stories of courageous  
workers trying to rescue their colleagues and broken families trying  
to plan so many funerals, Chronicle reporters would have to get to  
the bottom of what exactly went wrong and why. Was this truly an  
accident, or just an accident waiting to happen?

I remember vividly the first editorial meeting of the Texas City  
reporting team. George Haj, our deputy managing editor of news, said  
metro and business reporters would work together on this story like  
never before. It was a concept that had received a lot of lip service  
in the newsroom but had never been put to the test on a grand scale.  
 From the start, I could see why the wall between sections had not  
come down easily. Some reporters on the metro and business desks  
looked at the world in fundamentally different ways.

Right off the bat, one metro reporter said labor union officials were  
talking off the record, blaming the blow-up on shoddy work by  
contract employees. That reporter thought the focus of all stories to  
come was obvious—the ills of outsourcing. To the business reporting  
contingent at the table, that was stereotypical liberal media bias  
writ large.

I noted that any contract work performed at the site would have had  
to be inspected and signed off on by BP’s own plant managers, who  
were probably part of the union themselves, so that argument didn’t  
wash with me. This was BP’s facility, run by BP engineers, creating  
gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel that would be sold and booked on BP’s  
balance sheet. Whatever happened was bound to be a more complicated  
problem than the well-worn union-nonunion employee argument.

As it turned out, the fifteen dead were not BP employees but contract  
workers. And they had absolutely nothing to do with the explosion,  
which occurred in the isomerization unit, where octane-boosting  
gasoline ingredients are created.

The workers were meeting in a mobile construction trailer, planning  
maintenance for another part of the refinery, when the isom unit  
blew. The ensuing fireball rolled over the flimsy trailer,  
obliterating it. The explosion erupted while BP employees were  
restarting the unit after a two-week tune-up. A series of mechanical  
and monitoring problems caused a geyser of hot, flammable liquid and  
vapor to back up inside a hundred-foot-tall ventilation stack that is  
designed to relieve pressure inside the unit, and then overflow and  

Time and specialized reporting from both metro and business reporters  
would reveal that BP had a history of using Band-Aid fixes to keep  
Texas City running. Also, the maintenance workers’ very presence on  
the premises at the time of the blast was suspect. Restarting a  
refining unit is one of the most dangerous times at a plant, and  
other energy companies, such as ExxonMobil and Valero, have a policy  
of sending all nonessential employees home during the process.

The trailer that was incinerated was just 121 feet away from the vent  
stack that overflowed with boiling liquid, a violation of both BP’s  
internal policy of putting all trailers at least 350 feet from  
hazardous equipment and similar industry guidelines. Emergency alarm  
systems that could have warned workers to evacuate the area never  

Had either the city desk or the business desk been solely responsible  
for uncovering what went wrong and how BP’s corporate culture was to  
blame, there would have been tremendous gaps in the Texas City story.  
It took environmental and energy reporting as well as investigative  
and legal legwork to ferret out a series of troubling flashpoints:

• That particular unit had a long history of fires and explosions  
going back more than a decade, including a fire less than twenty-four  
hours before the blast. The unit was restarted anyway.

• BP leads the nation in refinery fatalities since 1995, with ten  
times as many deaths as recorded at ExxonMobil, BP’s major U.S.-based  

• The Occupational Safety and Health Administration told plant  
managers in 1992, thirteen years before the explosion, that the  
unit’s ventilation stack was out of date and more modern equipment  
was needed. It was never replaced.

That newsgathering was no small feat. The Texas City blast was the  
nation’s most serious industrial accident in fifteen years and the  
first major one after 9/11. Government documents concerning the  
plant’s operational procedures and safety record that were once  
easily accessed had vanished into the Homeland Security labyrinth.  
Again and again, reporters hit brick walls trying to find what had  
been considered basic public information a few short years ago. I was  
told many documents had become classified so they could not fall into  
terrorists’ hands and put the country’s refining and chemical  
complexes in harm’s way.

It took a small army of journalists to smoke out all this  
skulduggery. A business reporter, Anne Belli, was dogged in winning  
the trust of plant insiders, the environmental reporter Dina  
Cappiello found alternate routes to BP documents, and the  
investigative reporter Lise Olsen’s vast experience with filing  
Freedom of Information Act requests helped pry loose damning numbers  
about BP fatalities and the shockingly small fines BP had paid to  
federal and state agencies as a result. In the case of one worker who  
died at BP’s Whiting, Indiana, refinery, osha fined the company only  

There was a time when the Chronicle would not have covered such a  
story so relentlessly. There used to be an attitude that refineries  
were dangerous places to work and employees took their chances every  
day when they punched the clock. But times have changed. I’d like to  
think the harsh glare of the spotlight the newspaper shined on events  
at Texas City made a difference. This time around osha fined BP a  
record $21.4 million after finding more than 300 violations. BP had  
to set aside more than $1 billion to deal with legal fallout from the  
explosion and invested even more to overhaul the Texas City plant.

Other costs to BP and its management are harder to quantify.

Chairman Lord John Browne announced in January that he would be  
stepping down from the helm of BP this summer, eighteen months  
earlier than he had planned. A few days later, a 300-page report from  
an independent panel investigating BP—and run by former Secretary of  
State James Baker III—criticized a “run until it breaks” mentality at  
the company, which has “a false sense of confidence” about safety.

Since Texas City, there have been other collaborations between the  
business and metro desks at the Chronicle, most notably during the  
trials of Enron’s top brass. A team of reporters produced a  
continuously updated blog of all the courtroom action—deciphering the  
finer points of Enron’s financial woes—in addition to traditional  
daily and enterprise pieces.

We’re too turf-conscious in journalism. We talk a good game about the  
shrinking world and the interconnected nature of things, but have a  
hard time applying that to our own newsrooms. Almost every story is,  
in some way, a business story. By ignoring this fact in favor of some  
artificial notion of “that’s your beat, this is mine,” we do our  
readers a disservice.

Lynn J. Cook, an energy writer for The Houston Chronicle , is one of  
this year’s Knight Bagehot fellows, studying finance and economics at  
the Columbia Business School.

Enjoy this piece? Consider a CJR trial subscription.

© 2005 Columbia Journalism Review at Columbia University's Graduate  
School of Journalism

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