Federal regulators and union officials have warned for years that a pattern of safety violations at oil refineries would lead to tragedies like Friday's explosion that killed five workers and critically injured two others at Tesoro's Anacortes refinery.

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Federal regulators and union officials have warned for years that a pattern of safety violations at oil refineries would lead to such tragedies as Friday’s explosion that killed five workers and critically injured two others at Tesoro’s Anacortes refinery.

A national effort to step up safety inspections has turned up hundreds of safety violations at refineries nationwide — and Anacortes was no exception.

The Tesoro refinery was cited last April (and initially fined $85,700) for 17 “serious” safety violations that posed a risk of death or serious injury to workers, according to the Washington state Department of Labor and Industries (L&I), which is investigating Friday’s explosion.

In all, that inspection found 150 safety deficiencies, mostly failures to keep accurate safety records and information on possible hazards to workers. Michael Silverstein, a top L&I official, said Friday the agency doesn’t know yet whether those safety violations occurred in the same area of the refinery as the explosion.

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After the company appealed its $85,700 fine, L&I agreed to dismiss all but three of the 17 serious violations and reduced the fine to $12,250.

In exchange, Tesoro hired a safety consultant to “abate hazards at the refinery more quickly” than if the appeals process had continued, L&I said in a news release Friday. The consultant visited the refinery in March to start its work.

Tesoro and other refinery industry officials said they’ve tried hard to reduce accidents in an industry that by its nature involves working closely with explosive chemicals.

“Not to downplay what happened … but this is a real anomaly for this facility,” said G. Michael Marcy, a Tesoro spokesman, at a news conference in Anacortes.

The last fatality at the refinery occurred in 2002, when a contractor was crushed by a construction elevator, according to Marcy and an L&I report. In December 2006, three contract workers were hospitalized after exposure to naphtha, a crude-oil product.

In 1998, six workers were killed by an explosion and fire at the other Anacortes refinery, then owned by Equilon Enterprises and now operated by Shell.

That accident led to a record $4.4 million settlement with L&I over safety violations. Equilon later paid $45 million to settle a wrongful-death lawsuit brought by the families of the workers who died.

Silverstein, assistant director of L&I’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health, said the agency will conduct a thorough investigation, which could take many months, to determine what caused Friday’s explosion.

“We intend to take a hard look at the circumstances that led to these deaths and these injuries in order to determine if there were any violations of the law,” he said.

The other Anacortes refinery was fined $110,000 by L&I after the agency found 23 serious safety violations.

Both that inspection and the inspection that resulted in fines against Tesoro were part of a national program of intensified scrutiny of refineries launched after a 2005 refinery explosion killed 15 workers at a BP refinery in Texas.

Despite the increased inspections, regulators say the refinery industry hasn’t done enough to protect workers.

“The petroleum industry has a long way to go before we can feel comfortable that workers there are being adequately protected,” said David Michaels, head of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

John Bresland, chairman of the federal Chemical Safety Board, which investigates accidents like this one, said the entire industry needs a more-critical focus on safety. “It’s so frustrating, because we keep seeing these accidents,” Bresland said. “They all have different reasons, but it’s all about a day-in and day-out attention to detail.”

Daniel Horowitz, a Chemical Safety Board spokesman, said the agency has seen a “disproportionate” number of accidents among 150 refineries in the United States, compared with tens of thousands of other types of chemical plants handling hazardous materials.

Of the 18 cases being investigated by the board, seven involve oil refineries, including Friday’s explosion in Anacortes.

Tesoro, in the company fact sheet, said its recordable injury rates have declined by 30 percent over three years, and that the Anacortes refinery was recognized in 2006 and 2007 by the National Petrochemical and Refiners Association with a Gold Award for outstanding safety employment.

Bill Bush, a spokesman for the American Petroleum Institute, said the industry isn’t getting the credit it deserves. Injury and illness rates have dropped in the last decade, he said, and the industry as a whole recently adopted more-rigorous safety standards.

“The oil refineries are doing a lot to address safety issues,” he said.

But safety has long been a concern for the union representing refinery workers.

Kim Nibarger, a Pennsylvania-based health and safety expert for the United Steelworkers, spent 17 years at the refinery next door to Tesoro.

He said the union has had a decent relationship with Tesoro in Anacortes. But nationally, the refining industry “has not done nearly enough fast enough,” to improve its safety record.

“The general public has no idea what’s going on with these facilities,” Nibarger said. “If they did, they’d be scared half to death.”

Earlier this year, the United Steelworkers mailed out a poster to members showing scenes from the fires that rocked a Houston plant in 1989, warning “it’s only a matter of time” before another serious refinery accident killed workers.

Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or jbrunner@seattletimes.com

Craig Welch: 206-464-2093 or cwelch@seattletimes.com

Seattle Times reporters Hal Bernton, Sara Jean Green and Andrew Garber contributed to this report.

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