THE U.S. Chemical Safety Board investigation report on the Tesoro refinery tragedy tells a story of why seven workers perished needlessly four years ago, the unseen human cost of filling our gas tanks.
On April 2, 2010, an aging heat exchanger in the naphtha hydrotreater unit catastrophically ruptured during startup activity, releasing hot hydrogen and naphtha that ignited and exploded, followed by an intense fire. Two operators died at the scene; the others died later of severe burns.
The Chemical Safety Board found the refinery should have replaced the exchanger’s severely cracked and weakened carbon steel shell much earlier with safer materials.
We released the report to the public at a listening session in Anacortes a couple of weeks ago. The sense of loss, frustration and anger was palpable.
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Estus Ken Powell, who lost his daughter Kathryn in the accident, stood up. He wanted to partly express frustration over the fact that our report was delayed longer than any of us wanted, but also to demand action to stop these horrible accidents. Powell said, “My life was forever changed. All I want to know is, does anybody care? It seems we can get nobody to have any teeth in anything, to get anything done.”
I wish every American had been listening. We have a refinery crisis in America. Workers continue to die and suffer injuries in horrendous explosions and fires. The Chemical Safety Board has investigated all too many, and a common key finding is disturbing: Too many corporations are letting essential equipment run to failure.
At the Chevron refinery near San Francisco in 2012, critical piping was allowed to deteriorate over decades. Nineteen workers narrowly escaped a massive vapor cloud before it caught fire and 15,000 residents sought medical evaluation following exposure to the smoke plume.
At both Tesoro and Chevron, warning signs were ignored over many years, and opportunities to prevent accidents by implementing inherently safer design were missed.
Both Chemical Safety Board investigations show state and federal regulators are not able to ensure safety at refineries. They are under-resourced, outgunned by a powerful industry that seeks to blunt and sometimes even roll back the already inadequate regulatory system in the U.S.
Although Washington state is ahead of others, it still has only four process-safety inspectors overseeing 270 chemical and refining plants across the state.
The Chemical Safety Board is considering recommending a major change in the way the states of Washington and California oversee refinery safety. It would require facilities to prove to regulators that they are undertaking the highest safety measures possible. It’s called the safety-case model, and it includes an expanded role for workers in promoting safety.
Our investigations have concluded that no less than this fundamental change is needed. Our board tracked 125 significant refinery incidents in 2012 alone.
Steve Garey, a Tesoro machinist and president of the United Steelworkers Local 12-591, told the audience in Anacortes, “The entire industry … is not doing what they should be doing,” citing 15 deaths at a Texas refinery explosion in 2005 and 11 who died on the Deepwater Horizon oil platform four years ago.
The cost of producing gasoline to fill our tanks falls disproportionately on oil-sector workers and the communities nearby. For those who have suffered from accidents like the one at Tesoro, the pain lingers.
Amy Gumbel, who lost her brother Matt in the Tesoro fire, says, “I think that until our governments, whether it be state or federal, change the laws and the penalties for safety and procedures and the types of regulations that these companies should have, I don’t think that there’s going to be any improvement.”
Gumbel’s plea is the heartfelt message we should all take from the tragic loss of life at Tesoro and other recent petroleum disasters. Whatever the price of gas at the pump, there is often a human cost that is too great to bear.
Rafael Moure-Eraso is chairman of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, an independent, non-regulatory federal agency that investigates chemical accidents. He was previously a professor at University of Massachusetts Lowell.