Steve Garey, who retired from the Anacortes refinery in 2015 after almost 25 years and served as president of the United Steelworkers local, said that while some positive changes were made after the 2010 accident, upper management at Tesoro remains “contemptuous” of its work force and is “hiding behind incredibly permissive process safety regulations.”
Those regulations grew out of a string of catastrophic events in the 1980s, among them a chemical leak at a Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, that killed thousands in December 1984, and a near-miss at a sister plant in Institute, West Virginia, eight months later. Mishaps occurred with alarming frequency in the United States throughout the decade. In May 1988, the Shell refinery in Norco, Louisiana, exploded, killing seven workers and injuring 42. In October 1989, the Phillips Petroleum chemical plant near Houston blew up, killing 23 and injuring 132.
By 1990 Congress had seen enough. In amendments to the Clean Air Act, it ordered the Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration — OSHA — and the EPA to address what then-Rep. Henry Waxman, a California Democrat, years earlier had called “a quiet but deadly crisis.”
In 1992, OSHA came out with its Process Safety Management standard, which requires industries using “highly hazardous chemicals which may be toxic, reactive, flammable, or explosive” to identify and address vulnerabilities, train workers in emergency-response procedures and take other actions. Four years later the EPA published its Risk Management Program rule, which sets out similar requirements along with a directive that the companies most likely to hurt or kill large numbers of people prepare worst-case accident scenarios and update them every five years.
These scenarios — which must be viewed in person and can’t be photocopied or photographed because of what the EPA describes as security concerns — are decidedly grim. The one for the Tesoro refinery in Anacortes is less daunting than most: the refinery’s remote location on March’s Point, in Fidalgo Bay, means that only 33 members of the public would be in harm’s way in the event of a vapor-cloud explosion, the company estimates. Contrast this with, say, an all-out release of hydrofluoric acid from the PBF Energy refinery in Paulsboro, New Jersey, just south of Philadelphia, which, PBF calculates, would put 3.2 million people at risk of injury or death. Or a discharge of the same chemical, known as HF, from the Marathon Petroleum Corporation refinery in Texas City, near Houston, which would threaten 670,000.
A modified form of HF nearly escaped from the ExxonMobil (now PBF) refinery in the Los Angeles suburb of Torrance last year. At a public meeting there in January, Chemical Safety Board Chairwoman Vanessa Sutherland explained how an explosion in the refinery’s hydrocarbon-choked electrostatic precipitator, a pollution-control device, had sent airborne an 80,000-pound piece of debris, which narrowly missed a tank of modified HF 80 feet away. Had the tank been pierced, Sutherland said, there could have been a “catastrophic release of extremely toxic [acid] into the neighboring community.”
The Torrance scare came not quite two years after an explosion at a fertilizer storage and distribution business in the town of West, Texas, killed 15 — a dozen volunteer firefighters and three members of the public — and injured 260. The blast moved President Obama in August 2013 to issue Executive Order 13650, which called on the EPA, the Labor Department and other federal agencies to come up with preventive steps beyond those already mandated by law.
The EPA, which declined to make any of its officials available for interviews, has since proposed an updated version of its risk-management rule that could become final as early as January. It dictates additional hazard analyses and emergency-preparedness measures but in the view of the Chemical Safety Board and others — notably the Coalition to Prevent Chemical Disasters, with more than 100 member groups — doesn’t go far enough. For example, it requires only a fraction of the facilities that pose dangers to “consider” inherently safer technologies while pondering risks. This “permissive language,” the board said in a written comment to the EPA in May, means a company could “poorly perform the analysis and still satisfy the requirement.”
Who would be against safer technologies and other advances? Any number of corporations, trade associations and politicians. Among the 61,716 comments the EPA received were missives from the American Chemistry Council, which complained about the paperwork burden process analyses would impose on its members; the attorneys general of Texas and Louisiana, who said they feared new transparency provisions would encourage “those with nefarious motives”; and Sens. James Inhofe, David Vitter, John Barrasso and Shelley Moore Capito, all Republicans, who didn’t like the idea of third-party safety auditors prying into operations at their constituents’ plants.
The Labor Department is moving more slowly than the EPA. “We’re probably a couple of years away from a proposal” to revamp OSHA’s process-safety standard, said Jordan Barab, the department’s deputy assistant secretary for occupational safety and health. An overhaul is badly needed, said Kim Nibarger, who chairs the United Steelworkers national oil bargaining sector. “There’s no teeth to it,” he said. “If you develop a written plan, you’re basically in compliance with the standard. There’s no need to prove the plan is going to result in any improvements.”
After the BP-Texas City disaster in 2005, OSHA officials looked at inspection data and found that oil refineries accounted for more worker deaths than any other industry category covered by the standard. In 2007, the federal agency — along with many states that have their own versions of OSHA, such as Washington and California — launched a nationwide refinery inspection blitz that lasted four years. All told, 1,588 federal citations were issued, 70 percent of which involved process safety. A year before the Anacortes accident, the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries cited Tesoro for 17 serious violations as part of the program.
At this early stage, the Labor Department is considering a number of enhancements to its process-safety rule. It might, for example, extend coverage to oil and gas drilling, which are exempt at the moment. It might deal with reactive chemicals — substances that generate heat or toxic fumes when combined. It might broaden stop-work authority to include contract employees and force managers to sign off on safety recommendations they approve — or reject. It might make companies log near-misses.
An oil refiners trade group already has registered objections. In written comments, American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers argued that the ideas under consideration “will not only fail to significantly reduce operational risks at covered facilities in our industry, but may actually undercut the safety benefits of the current [standard] … and will add significant, unnecessary and unjustified compliance costs to an already costly program.”
Given what appears to be a regulation-averse White House on the horizon and a Republican-controlled Congress, it’s hard to know how the EPA and OSHA efforts will play out. This much is clear: the industries that would be affected by any new rules have extraordinary influence. The American Petroleum Institute, for example, spent $69 million on lobbying from 2006 through 2015, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, the American Chemistry Council $77.4 million. During the 2016 election cycle, API’s political action committee gave $281,250 to federal candidates, 85 percent of which went to Republicans. The chemistry council’s PAC handed out $450,000, 73 percent to Republicans, while American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers’ PAC gave $172,000, 95 percent to Republicans.
California is moving ahead on its own. In August 2013, a year after a corrosion-related fire at the Chevron refinery in Richmond, northeast of San Francisco, filled the skies with smoke and sent 15,000 people to hospitals and clinics, Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown convened an interagency refinery task force and asked it to find ways to amplify safety and emergency response.
That exercise spawned a 2016 proposal by the California Environmental Protection Agency and the California Department of Industrial Relations that would, among other things, make refiners adopt “inherently safer designs and systems”; give workers authority to shut down units for safety reasons; and require annual public reporting of safety metrics.
Stricter rules could have economic benefits as well as save lives. A state-commissioned study by the RAND Corporation found that while compliance costs for owners of California’s 19 refineries could be as high as $183 million a year, the average cost of the three major accidents that have taken place since 1999 was at least $220 million. An outage triggered by the explosion in Torrance last year cost California drivers nearly $2.4 billion, “which took the form of a prolonged $0.40 [per gallon] increase in gasoline prices,” researchers found. This shaved $6.9 billion off the state’s economy, according to the study.
Nonetheless, at the most recent public hearing on the proposal, in September, Big Oil pushed back, this time through the Western States Petroleum Association. The group produced its own consultant’s report, which claimed the RAND study was methodologically unsound and greatly underestimated industry costs. It asked, in written comments, why “less costly and less burdensome alternatives” to the proposed rules weren’t considered.
The two California agencies are still tinkering with a final regulation, which must be out by July 15 of next year; otherwise, the entire process will start over. Washington has formed an advisory committee and is mulling a similar initiative.
Meanwhile, problems keep turning up.
In August, the Chemical Safety Board issued an industrywide alert on high temperature hydrogen attack, the metal-weakening phenomenon that had lethal consequences in Anacortes. The board said the American Petroleum Institute’s updated operating limits for carbon-steel equipment did not take into account all the conditions that had led to the rupture of heat exchanger E. “The use of a [Nelson] curve not incorporating significant failure data could result in future catastrophic equipment ruptures,” the alert warned.
In short, the horror in Anacortes could be repeated. An API spokesman did not respond to requests for comment.
April 2010 was a ghastly month for American workers. The Tesoro accident on the 2nd was followed on the 5th by the Upper Big Branch coal mine cave-in, which killed 29 miners in West Virginia, and on the 20th by the immolation of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico, which killed 11 workers and put 5 million barrels of crude into the sea.
The families of the seven who died in Anacortes settled civil lawsuits against Tesoro and Shell for a collective $39 million in 2014. But Tesoro’s appeal of the state fine — which amounts to less than two-tenths of one percent of the $1.54 billion in profits the company reported for 2015, or slightly more than 10 percent of the $23 million CEO Goff received in total compensation that year — has left an open wound.
“It’s disgusting,” said Estus “Ken” Powell, a retired farm-equipment salesman who lives in Mount Vernon. His daughter, Kathryn Denise, known as K.D., was 28 the day she died. Mechanically inclined and unintimidated by the dangerous, male-dominated environment, K.D. had gone to work at Tesoro in 2008. She’d volunteered to help restart the bank of heat exchangers on the night of the accident.