Friday December 9th, 2005

BP acknowledges "management system failures" in Texas City refinery blast...Mistrial declared after jurors deadlock on remaining charges against former Duke Energy trading executive...AAA Texas says average gasoline prices slightly higher after eight straight weeks of declines...

BP issued a report today that says "management system failures'' led to a March blast at its Texas City refinery that killed 15 employees. More than 170 others were injured in the March 23rd explosion. The company said the investigation team "found no evidence of anyone consciously or intentionally taking actions or decisions that put others at risk.'' But it also found "many areas where procedures, policies and expected behaviors were not met.'' The report is the last of two BP promised on the incident. U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board Chairman Carolyn Merritt says she commends BP for its cooperation with the independent CSB investigation and for pledging corrective actions. British-based BP plans to invest about $1 billion to "improve and maintain'' the site over the next five years. BP Products North America President Ross Pillari says the company accepts the findings. He says BP is "working to make Texas City a complex that attains the highest levels of safety, reliability and environmental performance.'' BP is one of the world's largest oil and gas companies.


A judge has declared a mistrial after jurors deadlocked on the remaining charges against a former Duke Energy trading executive. During the eight-week trial, Timothy Kramer faced 19 charges related to allegations he recorded false trading data to boost bonuses for himself and others. Earlier this week, co-defendant Todd Reid was acquitted on all charges, while jurors found Kramer not guilty on seven of the counts. On Thursday jurors tried to resolve the remaining 12 charges against Kramer. But just before noon, they sent a note to the judge saying they "continue to be divided in principle'' on the remaining counts. U.S. District Judge Nancy Atlas declared a mistrial on those remaining 12 charges and released the jury. Assistant U.S. Attorney James Powers told the judge he did not know if his office would file to retry the remaining charges. Atlas gave prosecutors until January 10th to decide.


Jurors in the first federal trial over the painkiller Vioxx continue deliberating about whether Merck and company was negligent in designing the drug and failed to warn the public about its risks. The widow of a Florida man who died of a heart attack while using Vioxx is suing Merck in federal court in Houston. As jury deliberations began yesterday, the New England Journal of Medicine said Merck scientists left critical information out of a Vioxx study they gave the Journal in 2000. That disclosure will not be given to the nine jurors. Plaintiff's lawyers refuse to say whether they would use it to seek a mistrial.

Authors of a study funded by Merck failed to disclose in a published report that three additional patients in a clinical study suffered heart attacks while using Vioxx. That's according to an editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine, which published the report. Top editors at the Journal also allege the study's authors deleted other relevant data before submitting their article for publication. The findings of what became known as the Vigor Study have been a key part of testimony in the three product liability trials to date involving Vioxx.


CenterPoint Energy officials say it could be tonight before natural gas service is restored to about 2,200 customers in the east Texas town of Crockett. The Houston-based utility says it shut down service early yesterday a pressure drop was detected at a valve stand that supplies gas to the Crockett system. Temperatures fell into the upper teens in Crockett overnight--but are expect to climb to around 40 today before falling to around freezing tonight. Crockett is 43 miles west of Lufkin.


The Federal Emergency Management Agency held a pre-proposal conference at the Hyatt-Regency--one of four that the agency is hosting. FEMA has set aside $1.5 billion for maintenance and deactivation of about 100,000 temporary housing units. The award of "indefinite delivery/indefinite quantity" contracts is being made to local, small and disadvantaged businesses. Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee has introduced legislation to help small, minority-owned and disadvantaged businesses within an affected hurricane region for priority in response and recovery phases. FEMA will evaluate all submitted proposals, working with the Small Business Administration, with preference being given to contractors based in the Gulf Coast states. Interested companies can visit the Rebuilding the Gulf Coast Web site or the FedBizOpps Web site for Requests for Proposal forms.

The Houston District Council of the Urban Land Institute and the Houston section of the Texas Chapter of the American Planning Association are hosting a town hall meeting for evacuees on Saturday at the George R. Brown Convention Center. Evacuee comments about rebuilding the city are being sought for the "Bring New Orleans Back" Commission. The commission was appointed by New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin in October, consisting of 17 top business executives and community leaders. Members of the ACORN Katrina Survivors Association and New Orleans leaders of the Metropolitan Organization plan early-morning press conferences before the event to express anger and frustration with recent recommendations regarding the rebuilding of New Orleans. The groups say ULI plans leave lower income communities behind.

The FEMA extended the deadline for moving hurricane evacuees from Texas hotels to January 7th, but Governor Rick Perry says the state will need even more time to find long-term housing for Katrina and Rita evacuees. Katrina slammed parts of the Gulf Coast in late August, sending several hundred thousand Louisiana residents to Texas. Rita came ashore September 24th near Sabine Pass. FEMA this week reported about 34,000 people displaced by Katrina and Rita remain in hotels and motels in Texas. FEMA originally said it would stop paying the hotel bills of hurricane evacuees on December 1st. The deadline later was extended to December 15th. Texas and nine other states applied for extensions lasting until January 7th. A Perry spokeswoman says even the new deadline is unrealistic.


The Texas Workforce Commission says most Texas employers will see a decrease in their unemployment insurance tax rates next year because of improvement in the economy. Initial claims have declined by more than 25 percent in the past year, and rates are down, on average, more than two-tenths of a percent. The commission says it has seen a reduction in insurance overpayments in the past two years because of increased work-search verifications, improved automated processes and database cross matches with other agencies.


A weekly gasoline price survey finds the average price of gas at pumps across Texas has increased after eight straight weeks of declines. The AAA Texas survey today finds the statewide average price of regular self-serve gas is almost $2.08 per gallon. That's up two cents from last week. Beaumont has the highest average price of $2.10 per gallon--even though it was the only Texas City surveyed to show a decrease in the price average. Its average fell three cents from last week. Corpus Christi has the lowest average price of $1.96 per gallon. That's up eight cents from last week. Auto club spokeswoman Rose Rougeau says gasoline prices may be stabilizing as the holiday's approach. She says that could mean the statewide average gas price may not fall below $2 a gallon as expected. The national average price of regular self-serve gasoline at the pump is $2.15 per gallon--up a penny from last week.


Houston-based IT security software firm Bindview shareholders have approved the firm's acquisition by Symantec. The California-based software maker says it will provide a comprehensive end-to-end solution for policy compliance and vulnerability management when the deal closes.


Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist says a flu pandemic could derail the U.S. economy. Frist says the $7 billion the Bush Administration seeks from Congress for a pandemic is only one percent of the hit the economy would take. A Congressional Budget Office report says a severe pandemic could leave $90 million Americans infected and two million dead. Frist is supporting six proposals that he says would reduce a pandemic's impact. They include the development of a communications structure that would update the public every six-to-eight hours about symptoms. Frist also thinks the U.S. should spend $1 billion to improve detection, and stockpile enough tamiflu to treat a quarter of the U.S. population.


El Paso Corporation has completed the sale of its stakes in four Chinese power plants to Gentig Power China in a $70 million deal. Houston-based El Paso has announced or closed about $1.5 billion of its targeted $1.2 billion to $1.6 billion of assets sales, as part of the company's debt-reduction program.


Noble Energy has sold a 25 percent working interest in 37 deepwater leases in the Gulf of Mexico to Oklahoma-based Samson Offshore. Samson will participate in at least four exploratory wells through the end of 2008, beginning last this month.


A new publication for dental assistants and hygienists begins publication in January for distribution six times a year. Reality Team will report on product test results and equipment available to the dental profession. Product evaluation and tests are performed in-house at the Reality Research Lab.


Woodlands-based PR Marketing and Publishing is expanding its reviewit magazine into two new markets in 2006. The free magazine will be available in Sugar Land and Champions/Spring, in addition to its Woodlands edition. reviewit covers beauty and fashion, food and interior design, travel and art, culture and society.


The Michael DeBakey VA Medical Center has established a new center dedicated to treating colon cancer. The center will house treatment capabilities, a large database of information on colorectal cancer patients diagnosed at the VA center over the past decade and a large tissue sample database. Colorectal cancer, cancer of the colon or rectum, is the second-leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States.


Little Rock-based Alltel Corporation says it plans to become a pure wireless company by spinning off its wireline business. The local and long-distance division will be merged with Valor Communications Group of Irving--although the new company will be located in central Arkansas. Alltel made the announcement this morning. It says the deal is worth $4.9 billion, plus debt. Including $4.2 billion in assumed debt, the total transaction is valued at about $9.1 billion. That's based on Valor's closing stock price yesterday. Alltel says the deal will leave it with $11 million wireless customers in 34 states. Alltel shareholders will own 85 percent of the new company. The deal is expected to close by the middle of next year.


Bio photo of Ed Mayberry

Ed Mayberry

Local Anchor, All Things Considered

Ed Mayberry has worked in radio since 1971, with many of those years spent on the rock 'n' roll disc jockey side of the business...