Contact: Lynne Hancock, USW, 615-828-6169, firstname.lastname@example.org
Pittsburgh—The items highlighted in the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) report on its July 2012 inspection of ExxonMobil’s Baton Rouge, La., refinery are the same issues the United Steelworkers (USW) union has raised for a number of years regarding the safe operation of the nation’s refineries.
The problems cited at the Baton Rouge refinery facility (BRRF) are universal. The lack of mechanical integrity in refinery equipment has been a contributing cause in many of the worst accidents this industry has experienced. Mechanical integrity was a factor in the recent Chevron refinery fire, for which CalOSHA fined the company nearly $1 million; the April 2010 Tesoro Anacortes refinery explosion, which killed seven people; and the infamous BP Texas City refinery explosion and fire where 15 people were killed.
At BRRF, ExxonMobil did not have all the information needed for the equipment used in its processes, particularly the piping. The company failed to inspect, for a number of years, over 1,500 lines of piping and did not have any record of previous inspections. It also failed to identify over 250 lines with less than minimum thickness. This can prove to be problematic when companies arbitrarily change the criteria for replacement or fail to follow replacement guidelines. Thin and corroded pipes also can lead to leaks, explosions and fires. The EPA took photos of corroded overhead piping at BRRF. (Click HERE to see the photos.)
U.S. refineries are old and refiners need to be diligent with inspection and repair schedules to keep them in a safe operating condition. It is not enough that a refinery has a good written plan; it needs to follow the plan.
Staffing concerns are another major issue the USW has been trying to address and that were cited as a problem at BRRF. In a May 12, 2011 inspection, OSHA cited the company for not having the minimal number of people required to effectively facilitate an emergency shutdown of a specific unit. However, the company negotiated away the citation. In July 2012 the EPA found ExxonMobil did not adequately document the minimum number of personnel required to handle procedures in an emergency.
The USW reached an agreement during National Oil Bargaining on a fatigue risk management standard developed by an oil industry trade group, but the refiners have not embraced it. Instead, they continue to cut positions in the name of reducing costs.
Other problems EPA cited at BRRF that are prevalent throughout the industry were not having the necessary level of detail for each step of a procedure so that operators could complete each step; failing to address the incidence of nonessential personnel being near an operating unit during start-up; not documenting and determining an appropriate response to the findings of their own corporate compliance audit; and not fixing a known material incompatibility design flaw that resulted in a leak.
ExxonMobil’s failure to take appropriate action on items they identified as a concern disturbs us. Unfortunately, this is not an isolated issue but an industry-wide problem. When equipment is identified as being outside a safe operating range, it should be replaced or mitigated as soon as possible. To ignore these items should be a criminal offense because the company is knowingly placing workers and the community at risk.
The USW appreciates the EPA inspection and supports the areas of concern identified. We also think it is past time for issuing only monetary fines to these industries. Until corporate leaders are held accountable for actions taken and not taken to protect workers and the community, these infractions will continue. We repeatedly see companies paying their fines without correcting the situation. It is time for management to be held accountable for their reckless behavior and to be put in jail for breaking health and safety laws. Until that day comes, we will continue to see no change in this industry.
To see the EPA report, click HERE.
The USW is the largest industrial union in North America and has 850,000 members in the U.S., Canada, and the Caribbean. It represents workers employed in the metals, rubber, chemicals, paper, oil, energy, government and service sectors.
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