Bay Area Refinery Bars Federal Inspectors after Accident

Tuesday, February 25, 2014
(photo: Karen Bleier, AFP/Getty Images)

It is not unusual, unfortunately, for accidents to occur at oil refineries but it is not every day that federal inspectors are denied entry to investigate.

But that’s what Bay Area news outlets are reporting about an incident at Tesoro Corp.’s Golden Eagle Refinery near Martinez that occurred a couple of weeks ago. Two workers were burned when acid from a broken pipe splashed them. They were flown to UC Davis Medical Center for treatment of first- and second-degree burns and the next day three investigators for the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) visited the refinery.

They want to return to gather more information but Tesoro lawyers have raised a “jurisdictional challenge,” echoed in a press release, that a board investigation wasn’t necessary for a “personal safety incident that did not result in serious injuries or substantial property damage.”  Tesoro said the board “must respectfully decline to participate in the CSB's review due to their lack of authority in this particular instance.”

The board responded by issuing a subpoena for the records they want.

“We've certainly faced our share of jurisdictional challenges, but I can't think of another refinery or chemical plant that has taken a position that injuries aren't serious enough for us to investigate and that we lack jurisdiction,” CSB Managing Director Dan Horowitz told the Contra Costa Times.     

Tesoro has until March 7 to reply.

While the feds have had trouble gaining access to the refinery, the state has been more successful. The Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) ordered the section of the refinery where the incident occurred shut down on February 18 and conducted an investigation that passed muster with Tesoro. Different Tesoro spokeswomen were quoted identically here and here as saying the company is cooperating with Cal/OSHA because “it is clearly within their jurisdiction to investigate.”

Cal/OSHA told the Contra Costa Times that it has already prescribed remedial steps Tesoro must take to reopen the unit and will continue its investigation. The state also investigated an accident there in November when a worker was sprayed in the face with acid. Refinery workers reportedly told Cal/OSHA that they are afraid to work at the unit where the accident occurred because acid leaks happen often.

Tesoro’s response to the CSB may be colored by a January board report (pdf) about another Tesoro incident in 2010 when an explosion in Anacortes, Washington, killed seven workers. CSB Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso said the report attributed the accident to “a deficient refinery safety culture, weak industry standards for safeguarding equipment, and a regulatory system that too often emphasizes activities rather than outcomes.”

The board, which is an independent federal agency, does not issue citations or fines. But it does issue reports, which often range beyond the investigation at hand. Last month, the board voted 2-1 against a proposal by the CSB staff—supported by Moure-Eraso—that it recommend to the state adoption of the European “safety case” system, which emphasizes that regulation be based on setting goals with stated objectives, instead of having prescribed measures imposed with an ongoing inspection regime.   

Moure-Eraso had called the report on Tesoro’s Anacortes explosion “a clarion call for refinery safety reform.”

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

Tesoro Bars Federal Safety Agency from East Bay Refinery (by Jaxon Van Derbeken, San Francisco Chronicle)

Tesoro Thwarts Federal Investigators from Probing Recent Refinery Accident near Martinez (by Robert Rogers, Contra Costa Times)

Federal Investigators Denied Access by Tesoro Refinery after Chemical Release Burns Workers (by Holly Quan, CBS San Francisco)

Two Years after Richmond Fire, Feds Drop Proposal for Safety Overhaul (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)

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