Too few state oil refinery-safety checks
Jaxon Van Derbeken
Updated 8:45 a.m., Friday, September 7, 2012
Smoke and flame billow from a crude oil unit at the Chevron refinery in Richmond, Calif., Monday, Aug. 6, 2012. The facility makes high-quality products that include gasoline, jet fuel, diesel fuel and lubricants, as well as chemicals used to manufacture many other products.
Photo: D. Ross Cameron, Associated Press / SF
California regulators have not been conducting the intensive workplace-safety inspections of Chevron's Richmond plant and the state's 14 other oil refineries that federal standards call for, a Chronicle investigation shows.
The limited checks that California inspectors have performed over the last decade have not led to a single fine collected from a major oil company, according to inspection records.
Those findings are backed up by a recently released federal audit of the state's Division of Occupational Safety and Health, which is charged with enforcing state and federal workplace-safety rules at California refineries. It found that the California agency had conducted "very few, if any" comprehensive inspections of oil and chemical plants under its authority.
Cal/OSHA officials said the federal auditors' findings did not reflect the complete picture of their inspection and enforcement efforts. They said they would respond in detail directly to the auditors.
The federal report was completed not long before the Aug. 6 fire at Chevron's Richmond refinery that destroyed part of the plant and, according to investigators, narrowly missed injuring more than 20 workers.
Investigators with the federal Chemical Safety Board have said they are examining what caused a pipe in the refinery's crude oil-processing unit to rupture, emitting hydrocarbon vapor that ignited. They are also looking into regulators' inspection history at the Richmond plant.
A Chronicle review shows that California workplace-safety regulators conducted three planned inspections of the Chevron plant from 2006 to 2010, dedicating an average of about 50 man-hours per audit. That total is well below the 1,000 man-hours that federal auditors and investigators in other states averaged in recent, intensive refinery inspections of the type called for under federal law.
Refineries where those investigators found workplace-safety violations averaged 11 citations.
The California agency's planned inspections of the Chevron refinery were mostly designated as being "partial" in scope, records show, and found no violations of workplace-safety rules.
The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration began its three-year refinery inspection drive in 2007, two years after a vapor cloud emitted by an overflowing refinery tower exploded at BP's Texas City, Texas, refinery, killing 15 workers.
In launching the national effort, federal officials said that since OSHA promulgated industrial safety standards in 1992, "no other industry sector has had as many fatal or catastrophic incidents related to the release" of volatile chemicals as refineries.
In 2010, federal officials said the effort had uncovered a "deeply troubling" pattern of workplace-safety breakdowns among the 126 refineries that inspectors checked nationwide. Federal fines for refineries with violations averaged $76,000.
When the U.S. job-safety agency undertook the crackdown, California opted not to ramp up enforcement or seek federal help in auditing refineries, calling its own program sufficient.
The state has long said it has one of the nation's most rigorous refinery oversight operations. From 2001 to 2012, the process safety management unit of Cal/OSHA performed more than 600 inspections at refineries and other locations, a total that encompasses not just planned audits but also investigations prompted by complaints and accidents, the agency said. Those inspections resulted in more than $3.4 million in fines, Cal/OSHA said.
However, a Chronicle review shows that, as at the Chevron plant, California investigators found few workplace-safety violations when it conducted planned audits of the state's refineries.
In more than two dozen planned audits that the state workplace-safety agency performed over the last decade, it collected just one fine - $850 from a small, independent refinery in Paramount (Los Angeles County). In the other five instances in which inspectors cited refineries, the violations were quickly dismissed or settled without a fine.
The state did not provide information on how many man-hours those planned inspections entailed. But the average of 50 hours at the Chevron plant was far less than recommended by federal watchdogs.
The Chemical Safety Board has repeatedly called for far more comprehensive inspections - lasting "several weeks or months" under 1992 federal safety guidelines - for the nation's oil refineries.
Kim Nibarger, a safety official with the United Steelworkers union, which represents 600 workers at Chevron's Richmond refinery, said 50 hours is "not enough time to do a comprehensive audit."
"If they are not finding anything here, it looks like they aren't really looking very hard," Nibarger said. "It doesn't fit the bill for what they are supposed to be doing."
Dean Fryer, a spokesman for Cal/OSHA, said the state has "created the greatest level of refinery oversight in the nation. There are no other states with such a program, and the feds do not have such an effort."
Fryer added, "Refineries are regulated at a greater level in California than any other state in the nation. That's why it's been 13 years" since the last fatal refinery accident in the state.
Ellen Widess, chief of Cal/OSHA, said focusing on planned audits alone does not accurately portray the state's enforcement efforts.
She said such audits "are not meant to be comprehensive, given resources and given the enormity and complexity of refineries."
Fines totaled $11,000
In addition to the planned audits, Cal/OSHA has conducted six post-accident and 11 complaint-based investigations at the Chevron Richmond refinery since 2001. Those probes found two serious violations and several minor ones. The fines for those problems totaled about $11,000.
Cal/OSHA officials say that, depending on the scope, some of those probes can substitute for planned audits.
Those post-accident probes and complaint-based investigations, coupled with the planned audits, better represent the state's efforts, Widess said. "Just to focus on (planned inspections) is not a complete accurate picture of our total enforcement history with Chevron or, frankly, any refinery," she said.
Critics, however, say Cal/OSHA hasn't always been tough on Chevron even when it found problems.
They point to a $185 fine the agency issued against Chevron for a fire at the Richmond refinery in 2007. The state found that the company had not maintained a 20-year-old pipe valve, leading to a diesel fuel spill that caught fire and badly burned a worker.
Richmond City Councilman Tom Butt, a longtime critic of Chevron's refinery operation, noted that motorists face stiffer fines for driving solo in a carpool lane.
'I would be embarrassed'
"If I were OSHA, I would be embarrassed to issue a $185 fine," he said. "What's the point?
"Penalties are intended to do two things, provide some punishment and ... get people's attention so they won't do it again," Butt said. "Nobody's behavior is going to change with a $185 fine, especially one of the largest corporations in the world."
Randy Sawyer, head of Contra Costa County's hazardous materials program, which monitors refineries but has no authority to issue workplace-safety fines, said the pipe that failed was a "serious problem."
"It should not have been there," Sawyer said. The fire was something that was going to happen eventually, as the corrosion got worse. It was just sitting there, forgotten."
Widess had no comment on the $185 penalty, saying it was lodged before she took over last year.
Jaxon Van Derbeken is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
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