Hidden dangers at Pacific Coast oil refineries

The most deadly recent disaster claimed the lives of seven workers at an Anacortes refinery in 2010. Refineries' proximity to people also pose dangers beyond plants.
A refinery on Fidalgo Island near Anacortes (2008).

A refinery on Fidalgo Island near Anacortes (2008). 24hourmoon/Flickr

Refinery at Anacortes at night

Refinery at Anacortes at night RVwithTito/Flickr

When a crude-processing unit at Chevron's Richmond, Calif., refinery burst into flame in early August, sirens wailed through local neighborhoods as pillars of smoke blackened the sky over the city and surrounding hillsides.

The plant's emergency management system issued 18,000 calls to nearby residents, urging them to "shelter in place" —  closing windows, sealing cracks under doors with wet towels, turning off air conditioners — until further notice. But hundreds of people, many from poor, predominantly black and Hispanic neighborhoods near the plant, said they received no calls.

Jim McKay, a representative of the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, told a town hall meeting the next day that there had been no adverse impacts to air quality. But in the days following the fire, more than 14,000 people poured into local hospitals complaining of respiratory problems.

Chevron's 100-year-old plant has long been a source of contention in this industrial East Bay city —  and for good reason. It supports hundreds of local businesses and injects millions into the local economy, but it's also racked up dozens of air-quality violations in the last year alone, not to mention three serious fires in the last 12 years. The Richmond refinery is the state's leading source of greenhouse gas emissions and a routine violator of the Clean Air and Clean Water acts.

But the facility is hardly an anomaly.

With far less publicity, two smaller Wyoming refineries went up in flames within days of the Richmond blaze. The week before, a crude unit exploded at Cheyenne's Frontier refinery. Nearby residents described feeling the heat radiating from the burning plant as they scrambled to escape the jet-black plume. No alarms sounded; no emergency phone calls were made. A few days later (just a day before the Richmond accident) a refinery operated by Sinclair, near Rawlins, burst into flame, injuring a worker. This was merely the latest of six fires at that refinery in the past three years, three of them in the last three months. There have been numerous other incidents, including the illegal discharge of oil wastes that killed more than 100 birds. (In late August, the EPA announced $3.8 million in fines against Sinclair for repeated air pollution violations at its Wyoming refineries.)

Dig into the records of any of the country's refineries and you will find a similar litany of explosions, toxic releases, violations, worker injuries —  and deaths. A recent United Steelworkers report estimated that a fire breaks out, on average, every week at a U.S. refinery. Between 2000 and 2010, at least 117 workers were killed in the nation's oil refineries and coal-processing plants, according to Bureau of Labor statistics.

Of the 45 oil refineries scattered across eight Western states, 14 are considered "large," producing more than 75,000 barrels per day. All of these large refineries are located in or near major population centers  — and many smaller facilities are smack in the middle of towns and cities. The West's most serious recent refinery disaster happened at a large refinery owned by Tesoro in Anacortes, Wash. In 2010, an explosion there killed seven workers.

In response to that and dozens of other accidents in recent years, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the U.S. Chemical Safety Board have issued harsh proclamations.

"Bluntly speaking, your workers are dying on the job and it has to stop," said Jordan Barab, OSHA deputy assistant secretary, to a 2010 conference of refinery and mining representatives. Barab later noted that OSHA "inspectors have found many facilities where safety programs that look good on paper don't follow through in practice." Subsequent inspections at 50 refineries produced an average of 17 worker-safety violations totaling nearly $2 million per facility.

OSHA and the Chemical Safety Board have urged companies to more closely adhere to process safety management regulations, which outline how to deal with toxic materials and potential spills, fires and releases. Both groups have also advocated wider use of automated systems that monitor operations.


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Comments:

Posted Tue, Sep 11, 9:28 a.m. Inappropriate

Most of the consumption of refined oil products such as gasoline and diesel take place in cities. It seems logical that the adverse environmental by-products ought to be born by the metropolises that make it necessary to refine oil.

The boogeyman here is not oil refineries and the groups of shareholders that own them. It is likely that most readers own them because their 401k or public employee retirement program owns stock in them. The boogeyman here is all of us that create the demand for these refined products. The boogeyman here is all of us who sue management (or have our public employee retirement fund or 401k mutual fund) of these companies if the stock price drops because they spend money on safety instead of letting it drop to the earnings line. The boogeyman here is all of us who create a political firestorm if gas prices rise for any reason, including money spent by producers to prevent spills, or money spent by refiners to do the job more safely and cleanly.

Posted Tue, Sep 11, 10:55 a.m. Inappropriate

The fines need to be large enough so they actually have a deterrent effect and repeat violations need to be treated as criminal offenses with jail time for senior management. Seriously. If I blew toxic smoke into your house would it be treated as a minor civil violation? The people at the top are the ones responsible for killing people - both directly, through workplace safety violations and indirectly through pollution - and its time they were held responsible. Its the conservative thing to do. Its called personal responsibility.

Steve E.

Posted Tue, Sep 11, 6:52 p.m. Inappropriate

Don't you think it is that way because we, as shareholders, demand that CEO's not cough up the money to prevent the toxic smoke from blowing into someone's house? Over 50% of the stock in the S & P 500 is controlled by public pension funds and mutual funds (read you and me). We tell them hit that profit number no matter what. Don't hit it, we'll have our public pension or mutual fund sue you. If they don't, we will sue them, as a class. Lot's of lawsuits like that against Board's of Directors every day.

Don't you think it is that way because we, as voters, don't bounce people out of office for not enacting the regulations and fines of which you speak?

... and if you blew toxic smoke into my house, it would be misdemeanor harrassment or misdemeanor assault, no matter how many times you did it, assuming the prosecutor could prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that it was done deliberately and intentionally, not as an oversight or as negligence. Why? For it to be felony assault, the victim must be injured. Yes the smoke is toxic, but is is so toxic that the particular dose of smoke, by itself, cause provable injury? Or did it just increase the odds I would get cancer from 1:1,000,000 to 1:999,999 or 1:500,000?

I actually agree with you that they way to minimize (you can't eliminate it) is to have civil pentalties with teeth. I also recognize that those civil penalties would either raise the price of the product to consumers, cut the profits and share price of the stocks to shareholders (consumers and shareholders are somewhat overlapping groups here considering how much of the S&P; through mutal funds and public retirement systems is owned by workers), or some combination of both. I don't have a problem with that. Why should heaper gas prices, higher dividends,and higher capital gains for the broad population, be provided at the expense of the few that live near these refineries?

But it is that way because we, through our shareholding and voting, permit it to be that way by our actions and omissions. There is a disoonect between what we say and what we do. I would argue the former is deception, and the latter represents what our true values are.

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