Friday, February 21, 2014
Tesoro Golden Eagle refinery banned Federal safety agency from investigating criminal workplace safety violations
"Tesoro bars federal safety agency from East Bay refinery; Tesoro to pay fine for air-quality violations"
2014-02-21 by Jaxon Van Derbeken for "The San Francisco Chronicle" [http://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/Tesoro-bars-federal-safety-agency-from-East-Bay-5254436.php]:
In a 2010 file photo, the Tesoro Golden Eagle refinery spews black smoke from it's smokestacks as they burn as a result of a power outage. (Photo: Lacy Atkins, The Chronicle)
(02-21) 07:51 PST PACHECO -- In an unprecedented challenge, Tesoro Corp. has barred federal authorities from going inside its refinery near Martinez to investigate an incident in which two workers were burned by acid spewing from a broken pipe, The Chronicle has learned.
State officials ordered a partial shutdown of the Golden Eagle Refinery following the Feb. 12 incident after inspectors with California's workplace safety agency found numerous suspected safety violations, state officials said.
The investigators with Cal/OSHA went to the plant at 150 Solano Way in the unincorporated community of Pacheco when a pipe containing sulfuric acid burst, spraying the two workers in the face with the caustic chemical. The two were flown by helicopter to UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento, where they were treated for first- and second-degree burns and released later that day.
On Feb. 18, Cal/OSHA ordered Tesoro to shut down the section of the refinery where the pipe was located until the company reviews its operations, shows how it protects workers against acid spills and conducts refresher training. The unit adds octane boosters to refined gasoline.
Probe blocked -
Investigators with the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, the lead federal agency in major chemical-plant accidents, showed up a day after the incident and gained access to the refinery grounds. However, Tesoro has rebuffed federal investigators' subsequent requests to return to the refinery, agency officials said Thursday.
Tesoro officials said the Feb. 12 incident was minor and did not qualify under the rules for a federal investigation.
Safety board officials could not recall another refinery or chemical plant on U.S. soil that has challenged the board's authority since its inception in 1998.
"It's rather unique," said Dan Horowitz, the federal agency's managing director, "because our authority is very broad. We not only investigate incidents, but we can investigate hazards even where there has not been a release."
Feds' job -
The Tesoro incident, Horowitz said, falls squarely into the agency's jurisdiction.
"This is a hazardous unit - it released a hazardous substance, (and) those workers were seriously impacted," Horowitz said. "This is not the sort of accident that should be occurring, a loss of containment involving a hazardous substance. This is exactly the sort of incident that regulatory systems are designed to prevent. We need to find out why this happened."
He said the Chemical Safety Board has subpoenaed Tesoro to turn over documents about the unit's operations and answer questions related to the accident by March 7.
Tesoro, based in San Antonio, downplayed the incident and said it was not satisfied the federal board had the right to intervene.
Elizabeth Watters, a company spokeswoman, described the incident as a "minor chemical release" that left the two workers with "minor chemical burns."
"We were surprised when the Chemical Safety Board notified the company that the agency intended to deploy a team to investigate, as the (board) is not charged with investigating a personal safety incident that did not result in serious injuries or substantial property damage," Watters said.
Chevron precedent -
Horowitz noted that Chevron allowed safety board investigators into its Richmond refinery to investigate an August 2012 fire, even though it resulted in no major injuries to workers. The board eventually found that Chevron had ignored workers' warnings about widespread corrosion at the plant.
The Chemical Safety Board's interest in Tesoro's operations heightened in April 2010, when an explosion at the company's Anacortes, Wash., refinery killed seven workers. In a draft report issued last month, the federal board said Tesoro had a lax approach to safety, which had led to "catastrophic consequences."
Tesoro required "proof of danger" before it would make safety improvements, the agency said in the report.
Don Holmstrom, head of the board's Western regional office of investigations, said the latest probe will focus on safety culture as well.
"We think there are some serious safety issues that need further examination," he said. "We need to examine how strong their safety culture is."
Working with state -
Watters said the company takes "all incidents seriously" and was cooperating with Cal/OSHA's probe, "as it is clearly within their jurisdiction to investigate."
The Feb. 12 incident was not the first one involving acid at the Tesoro plant, officials said.
In November, a worker suffered facial burns when he was sprayed with sulfuric acid from a pipe that had been leaking and had been clamped as a makeshift repair.
The workers burned in the latest incident were wearing standard protective gear, but Tesoro had not issued them the specialized equipment required by law to protect their face and body from acid burns, Holmstrom said.
Workers at the refinery told state investigators that they were "afraid" to operate the unit where the spill occurred because acid leaks occur "all the time," according to a Cal/OSHA report. They said the pipes carrying the caustic fluid are dangerously thin.
They said the pipe that failed Feb. 12 broke again just four days later, Cal/OSHA said. Pipe-fitters were working on the unit and "the piping came apart in the exact same spot it did during the accident," the state report said.