SHAMELESS and shameful are the operative words to describe the conditions and attitudes that contributed to seven deaths in April 2010 at the Tesoro refinery in Anacortes.
A draft report by the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board inspires those sentiments with 158 pages of detailed prose about a high-temperature hydrogen attack:
“The refinery process safety culture required proof of danger rather than proof of effective safety implementation,” the report said.
Indeed, the catastrophic rupture of a heat exchanger was even more lethal because it followed the restarting of rickety equipment. That is known to be operationally troublesome, so more employees were clustered around to handle problems.
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Oil refineries and the petrochemical industry know better, but far too many operate on the cheap. Better, safer equipment is available but not used.
The need for an overhaul of equipment and attitudes has been known for decades, and nothing happens. U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Everett, expressed his frustration that it took nearly four years to get a report issued on the Anacortes tragedy.
The safety board noted it had tracked 125 recent incidents at U.S. petroleum refineries. Sloppy standards and aging equipment define the industry. Typically the country only learns of these conditions via calamities such as the 2005 explosion at a BP plant in Texas that claimed 15 lives and injured nearly 200.
Washington Sen. Patty Murray was upset enough by the safety board’s delays regarding Tesoro to raise the need for leadership changes unless there were dramatic improvements in performance.
This window on industry standards, investments and attitudes raises the urgency of a related piece of legislation in Olympia.
Oil shipments by rail have soared, and so have the accidents with loss of life and property damage. House Bill 2347 seeks information about rail shipments so local public safety agencies can prepare for the worst.
Tesoro’s failures at Anacortes were not isolated incidents. A fitting memorial to those seven lives would be for investigators to embrace a report that empowers higher standards and rigorous inspections to back them up. Let the industry fund it all.
Editorial board members are editorial page editor Kate Riley, Frank A. Blethen, Ryan Blethen, Sharon Pian Chan, Lance Dickie, Jonathan Martin, Thanh Tan, William K. Blethen (emeritus) and Robert C. Blethen (emeritus).