Chevron Fire One Year Later - What Will It Take to Prevent Another?

Chevron Fire One Year Later - What Will It Take to Prevent Another?

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The explosion at the Chevron refinery in Richmond, Calif. last August prompted state and federal investigations into the cause of the incident. As part of one such investigation, Governor Jerry Brown’s Interagency Taskforce on Refinery Safety requested assistance from the Labor Occupational Health Program (LOHP) of the Center for Occupational and Environmental Health at UC Berkeley. New America Media spoke with LOHP’s director, Dr. Michael P. Wilson, whose revised report, “Refinery Safety in California: Labor, Community and Fire Agency Views,” was released last month.

New America Media: The report states that for the past 10 years, Chevron had “repeatedly postponed” replacing the corroded portion of the pipe that would eventually burst and cause the August 6 fire. What factors were in play that resulted in the refinery’s being able to postpone this kind of repair?

Michael P. Wilson: That’s a finding that we pulled from the report of the Chemical Safety Board … One of the things that the investigation showed was that over the course of 10 years, the Chevron Corporation had ignored what the Chemical Safety Board said were at least 6 recommendations made by Chevron’s own technical personnel – who recommended that Chevron needed to update the metallurgy of the piping --the quality of the metal itself-- as well as the quality of pipe inspections for the 4-sidecut piping, where the failure actually occurred.

Chevron was duly informed multiple times by their own technical personnel, and they chose to ignore this at least 6 times over 10 years … These weren’t recommendations based on inspections by regulatory agencies. There was no force of law behind the recommendations that the company had to fix the piping. It was Chevron’s own technical personnel making the recommendations, and Chevron could choose to do something about the piping or not … Chevron’s decision to ignore their own technical personnel’s warnings came at a time when Chevron was having a series of massive fires and explosions because of corrosion; there had been incidents, including in Utah [Woods Cross in 2009] and up in Canada [Saskatchewan in 2011], as well as in Richmond in 2007 … Plants were blowing up and they still chose to do nothing.

NAM: What needs to change to make sure that this doesn’t happen again?

Wilson: The industry really suffers from a lack of transparency. No one is really on top of tracking what the plants are doing … The refineries have to be required to report to both government agencies as well as to the public on their maintenance schedules, the maintenance actions that they’ve taken, and the persons who are responsible … There needs to be a standard reporting protocol for the all the refineries in the state.

The second piece of this is that plants that are failing to meet basic maintenance standards, and health, safety, and environmental standards, should be subject to escalating penalties that ultimately lead to calling into question the refinery’s license to operate. This is the oil industry and they really have unlimited resources, so it’s difficult to assess meaningful penalties. Yet, if meeting basic standards for health, safety, and environmental performance are tied to their license to operate, those standards become meaningful … We’re basically entrusting the safe operation of this very dangerous industry to these companies, and we have to know they’re meeting that trust, and if they don’t we have to have the power to motivate and compel them to take meaningful action to improve … rather than just running the plants into the ground with band-aid fixes, like the many clamps Chevron placed on its corroded pipe. This kind of behavior puts workers in immediate danger, and it leaves the people living in the communities surrounding the plant vulnerable to catastrophic explosions and fires. How is that considered good management, good stewardship?

It’s really surprising. My grandfather worked in this industry, and my dad told me he would be shocked at how the management is running the refineries today, with this inattention to protecting the workers and the feeling of disconnect from the community … This is a basic responsibility of industry that Chevron has largely dropped over the years … We have pointed out that to improve accountability, a health and safety council needs to be required in the plants, and that the make-up of the council needs to include workers as well as members of the community and government agencies. The council should have a high level of management authority to take action and, frankly, [to] spend money to start making long overdue improvements in basic maintenance and safety.

NAM: You recommend that workers be more involved in reporting unsafe conditions and in management decisions pertaining to the health and safety of the community – what would that involvement look like?

Wilson: One of the things that we heard was that maintenance and safety problems reported by workers were often not corrected for months or years … Workers felt that they didn’t have the power and the authority to compel the company to respond to the concerns that they were raising … The refinery should be required to disclose information to workers’ representatives, a state agency, and a publicly accessible database online about maintenance and safety requests made by workers, and actions the company has or has not taken. That way anyone in Richmond, or in any other community, can see what’s happening.

There needs to be a fundamental shift of the burden of proof that a company is operating safely. Right now, the burden of proof lies with public agencies; they’re charged with playing Sherlock Holmes and trying to find hazardous conditions. What’s needed is to shift the burden of responsibility for safe operation to the plant. They have to demonstrate their competence in health, safety, and environmental performance as a condition of operation. Then a public agency can determine whether the plant is meeting those standards, and whether they’re sufficiently competent or not. That would change things. And, if the whole process is much more transparent and accessible to the public, that would make health, safety, and environmental performance much more compelling to the plant management.