The revelation that BP's Texas City refinery emitted toxic benzene for more than a month has ignited a furor in the port community that has suffered its share of deadly industrial accidents and toxic spills.
Thousands of residents who fear they may have been exposed to the known carcinogen released at the oil refinery from April 6 to May 16 have been flooding parking lots and conference halls where local trial attorneys hosted information sessions and sought clients for class-action lawsuits against the oil giant.
BP faces the new challenge just as it is reaching a key milestone in another crisis — plugging the Gulf of Mexico well that blew out in an oil spill disaster that is costing the company billions of dollars.
On Wednesday, more than 3,400 people lined the hallways and sidewalks around the Nessler Center to sign on to a $10 billion class-action lawsuit filed Tuesday in Galveston federal court by Friendswood attorney Anthony Buzbee.
The lawsuit alleges the release of 500,000 pounds of chemicals - including 17,000 pounds of benzene - has jeopardized the health and property values of people who live and work in the area. At the nearby College of the Mainland, a separate town hall meeting drew a crowd of 600.
"I've never seen anything like this," Buzbee said, looking at the lines waiting to enter a large room at the civic center where lawyers helped people fill out paperwork. "I can't believe this is mass hysteria and that everybody here is a faker," Buzbee said.
Webster-based lawyer Chad Pinkerton said he's met with about 8,000 residents over the past week. "I believe this is probably the largest prolonged release in Texas history and many, many people are sick," he said.
Word of the lawsuits spread this week, propelled in part by rumors that BP was cutting checks to head off the benzene claims from the $20 billion fund established to pay claims related to the oil spill.