Wednesday PM September 5th, 2007

Galveston jury hears opening statements in BP Texas City refinery blast civil trial...Jury selection in Oil-for-Food trial gets underway...Pending sales of previously-owned homes falls to lowest level in nearly six years...

A Galveston County jury listened as attorneys laid out their cases in the trial ofξseveral lawsuits from a deadly 2005 BP Texas City refinery explosion. Plaintiffs' attorney Brent Coon told jurors that the explosion that killed 15 people resulted from unsafe working conditions caused by the British oil giant's appetite for profits. Coon says BP ignored routine maintenance, overworked employees and failed to install safer equipment. Lawyers for BP told the Galveston County jury this afternoon that the company didn't knowingly put workers at risk. Attorney Otway Denny says BP takes responsibility for the refinery explosion. But he emphasized the company always tried to provide a safe working environment.

One ofξthe lawsuits in the first trial from the refinery blast was settled before trial opened. The settled lawsuit represented the 6- and 11-year-old sons of Rene Cardona, Sr. The 26-year-old Baytown man was a contract worker for engineering and construction company Contech Control Service. He committed suicide six weeks after the blast. His family's attorney, Robert Kwok, blamed Cardona's suicide on the emotional trauma he experienced because of the accident, which killed 15 people and injured more than 170 others. The terms of the settlement were confidential, but Kwok said "the boys' future is financially secure.'' BP spokesman Neil Chapman said the oil company continues to work to settle all lawsuits filed as a result of the accident. About 1,350 of the thousands of lawsuits filed since the accident have been settled.


Jury selection began in the conspiracy trial of a Texas oilman charged with offering kickbacks to win contracts from Saddam Hussein's regime. Oscar S. Wyatt, Jr., is on trial in New York. The Oil-for-Food trial is expected to last up to six weeks. He's accused of conspiring with others to gain favor for lucrative oil contracts. Authorities contend he gave money and equipment to the former government of Iraq from 1994 until March 2003. Prosecutors say Wyatt encouraged opposition to the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and bragged about his influence to Iraqi officials to win oil contracts. Defense lawyers plan to portray Wyatt as a victim of a prosecution that came about after his outspoken criticism of President Bush and his administration.


A trade group says pending sales of previously-owned homes fell in July to the lowest level in nearly six years. The National Association of Realtors reports a decline of 16 percent from a year earlier and 12 percent from the previous month. The reading was the second-lowest ever for the index and the lowest since September 2001. The group's chief economist says some home purchases aren't closing because mortgages ''have been falling through at the last moment.'' With defaults rising among borrowers with weaker credit, lenders have backed off from all but the safest mortgages.

Non-residential construction helped the industry in July, despite the homebuilding and credit market collapse, according to the Associated General Contractors of America. Based on U.S. Census Bureau figures, non-residential spending increased 0.6 percent for the tenth consecutive month, while residential fell 1.4 percent and total construction slipped 0.4 percent.


The worst housing slump in 16 years and upheaval in financial markets is getting attention on Capitol Hill. A House panel examined the potential impact on consumers during a hearing, which comes five days after President Bush proposed a plan to help struggling borrowers keep their homes amid rising foreclosures. Regulators from the Treasury Department, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation took part. Defaults have spiked in recent months on high-risk sub-prime mortgages, loans that were extended to borrowers with weak credit histories. That forced a number of lenders into bankruptcy, while hedge fund and other big investors in securities backed by sub-prime mortgages took deep financial hits. The turmoil spilled over into global credit markets and credit tightened, even for more creditworthy borrowers.


Oil prices rose Wednesday on expectations that the Atlantic hurricane season will intensify, and that a midweek U.S. government petroleum report will detail declines in crude and gasoline stocks. Hurricane Felix slammed into Central America near the Nicaragua-Honduras border as a Category 5 storm early Tuesday, then weakened, but it has largely spared oil and gas infrastructure in the Gulf of Mexico. Analysts surveyed by Dow Jones Newswires predict gasoline stocks will decline by 1.1 million barrels in the week ended August 31st and that refinery utilization would rise by two tenths of a percentage point to 90.5 percent. The Energy Department report usually comes out on Wednesday but was delayed by one day due to Monday's Labor Day holiday.


The poor experiences that many Americans have had with their air travel in recent months is confirmed in the latest government numbers. The Transportation Department says the percentage of flight delays at the nation's largest airlines rose in July compared with a year ago. The growing delays are seen reflecting rising demand, some bad weather and increased use of smaller planes further clogging airports. The airline industry's on-time performance in the first seven months of 2007 was its worst since comparable data began being collected in 1995. July's on-time performance was the 11th worst on record. The 20 carriers reported an on-time arrival rate of just under 70 percent in July. That is down from nearly four percentage points from a year ago. Through July, more than 25 percent of flights have arrived late. The rates of mishandled baggage and customer complaints also rose in July, according to the government data.


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