Monday AM October 30th, 2006

CSB to release preliminary findings this week from BP Texas City refinery explosion...Gross Domestic Product expands at slowest rate in over three years...University of Michigan reports higher Consumer Sentiment...

The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board will hold a news conference tomorrow morning to release preliminary findings from the BP Texas City refinery explosion. The CSB will also release new safety recommendations from its 19-month investigation into the March 23rd, 2005 explosions. Fifteen workers were killed and 180 injured. CSB Chairperson and CEO Carolyn Merritt says the rarity of catastrophic risks makes it easier for management to step back away from good safety practice.

"One of the things that we have learned, and sometimes I, you know, joke with my staff that we don't even need to go out in the field to respond to these events because we keep seeing the same things over and over. And it's lack of technical experience, failure to recognize hazards, failures to recognize warning events and address them before these events occurred. Well, why do those things happen? We also recognize that there's a huge management component to this. Much of management is looking at OSHA incident rate as an indicator of their control of risk at their facility. There's another whole element, which is the culture, safety culture which fails to recognize the inherent risk of what they're doing, and it sets the stage for an accident to happen of catastrophic proportions."

The agency has already issued urgent recommendations for BP to examine its safety culture and for the relocation of trailers away from hazardous process areas.

"In the facility at BP that we're currently investigating, multiple times did this one piece of equipment have overflow where gasoline was emitted from, and gasoline vapors were emitted from the equipment that eventually led to this explosion. But because nothing bad had happened in 50 years, you know, nobody recognized or they stepped away from the realization that they were emitting gasoline vapors. And it was, they were so complacent to this that they had trailers, occupied trailers during the start-up only 121 feet away from this unit that exploded. They also had vehicles parked within 50 feet of this tower that eventually overflowed--one or more of them that was running at the time of the explosion."

The CSB doesn't issue citations or fines but does make safety recommendations for plants, industry organizations, labor groups and regulatory agencies such as OSHA and EPA.

Blame it on the housing market. The Commerce Department says gross domestic product expanded at an annual rate of 1.6 percent, the slowest in more than three years. It is weaker than expected. The slowdown in the housing market played a key role in the loss of momentum. Investment in homebuilding was cut by the biggest amount since early 1991. Gross domestic product measures the value of all goods and services produced in the U.S. It is considered a key barometer of the nation's economic standing. By comparison, growth in the first three months of the year was put at more than 5.5 percent. This is the first estimate of third quarter GDP, subject to revision in the months ahead.

The White House says the sharp drop in economic growth last quarter is nothing to worry about. Press Secretary Tony Snow tells reporters, "everybody expected this.'' That's despite the fact that economists did not predict such a large slowdown. Snow says the slowdown is the predictable result of the run-up in oil prices and interest rates earlier this year--plus the slump in the housing market. He was reacting to the Commerce Department's report that the economy grew at a 1.6 percent rate in the third quarter. That's the slowest rate in three years. The report comes a week and a-half before a midterm election in which the economy's a top issue. But snow says America's economic fundamentals are strong, and the administration has "confidence the economy is going to rebound.''

By one measure, consumers' feelings about the economy are more positive than they were a month ago. The University of Michigan's October full-month report on Consumer Sentiment moved up to 93.6 from 85.4 in September, according to reports. The University of Michigan report is released only to subscribers. The report is based on a telephone survey of households.

The National Theatre for Children is in the Houston area giving two-person school performances called "Mad About Money," teaching responsibility about financial matters. The Minneapolis-based group teaches financial literacy through live theater, and performances are set for today at Holland Middle School and Tuesday at Sharpstown Middle School and B.C. Elmore Middle School.

The Public Utility Commission has fined retail electric provider Affordable Power Plan for failing to properly notify customers before disconnecting service. Xcel Energy subsidiary Southwest Public Service in the Texas Panhandle is paying a fine for not meeting service reliability standards.

Houston-based Allis-Chalmers Energy is acquiring the assets of Louisiana-based Oil & Gas Rental Services in a $350 million cash and stock deal. Oil & Gas Rental Services provides rental tools to onshore and offshore exploration and production companies.

Houston-based Benchmark Performance Group has spun its internal transportation division into a business for transporting products for other companies. Benchmark Distribution Services will provide freight-hauling services throughout the United States. Benchmark Performance Group supplies chemicals to the oil well pressure pumping service industry.

St. Paul Travelers is consolidating four Houston offices into a new building in Westway Park near the Sam Houston Tollway and Clay, according to the Houston Chronicle. The building, which will be completed this fall, will house about 900 employees.

A professor of surgery and cancer biology at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center has been awarded a $250,000 grant for carcinoid research by the Caring for Carcinoid Foundation. Dr. Lee Ellis is a professor of surgery and cancer biology, studying a rare form of neuroendocrine cancer for which there are no effective therapies. The two-year research project will help establish models for research, identifying molecular targets in the cell lines that warrant further investigation.

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