By Erwin Seba
HOUSTON (Reuters) - Trial began on Wednesday in the first four of 48,000 civil lawsuits filed against BP Plc (LSE:BP.) for pollution from the 460,196 barrel per day (bpd) refinery it owned in Texas City, Texas until early this year, according to court documents.
The four suits allege that people were harmed when the refinery released vapours into the atmosphere from its hydrocracking unit during a 40-day period in 2010. The city had a population of 45,099 in 2010, according to the U.S. Census.
Since the first lawsuits were filed in 2010, the British oil company has denied the claims that people were harmed by the emissions, which included 17,000 pounds of benzene, according to notices filed by the refinery with Texas pollution regulators.
BP said in a statement on Wednesday that: "Neither the community air-monitoring network nor the BP fence-line monitors showed elevated 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."
The four plaintiffs whose cases began on Wednesday are seeking compensation of $200,000 each from BP. All 48,000 plaintiffs in the refinery lawsuits also are seeking a single punitive claim of $10 billion that would be donated to charity.
In 2011, BP paid $50 million to settle a lawsuit by Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott over pollution from the refinery between 2005 and 2011.
BP ALSO FACES SUITS OVER OIL SPILL
BP may find itself mounting defences to court cases involving the refinery in Texas at the same time that it defends itself from suits in Louisiana stemming from the biggest offshore oil spill in U.S. history.
The second phase of its court case over the 2010 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig and rupture of BP's Macondo oil well in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico will start later this month in New Orleans.
BP has already incurred about $42.4 billion of charges on its balance sheet related to the oil spill that followed the explosion in which 11 people died.
In recent months, the company has filed numerous motions and appeals to slow or halt payouts under a settlement agreement it signed to compensate people harmed by the Gulf spill. BP has complained that the process was being mismanaged by the claims administrator and costing the company more than expected.
BP has also filed a suit against the U.S. government after it was excluded from bidding for new federal contracts.
TEXAS CITY REFINERY HAS BEEN SOLD
The Texas City refinery cases are being tried in Galveston by the Texas state court of the 56th Judicial District.
In 2005, 15 workers were killed and 170 others injured by an explosion at the Texas City refinery. Federal investigations found BP had poorly maintained the plant. The company paid $2.1 billion to settle 4,000 lawsuits stemming from the blast.
BP sold the Texas City refinery and related assets on February 1 to Marathon Petroleum Corp (MPC.N) for $2.5 billion.
(Reporting by Erwin Seba; Editing by Terry Wade and David Gregorio)