A PAI SPECIAL REPORT, PART I:
TEXAS CITY, Texas – Nine years ago, on March 23, 2005, the British Petroleum oil refinery in Texas City, Texas, an hour south of Houston, in so many words, blew up.
The hydrocarbon vapor cloud explosion after liquid overflow from an old blowdown stack there killed 15 people, injured 170 more and exposed numerous flaws in the nation’s refineries, many of them, like the BP plant, lining the Texas Ship Channel from Galveston to Houston. It also exposed flaws in job safety agencies.
In the weeks after the explosion at the plant, the third-largest refinery in the U.S., the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) launched a comprehensive investigation of what went wrong. So did the independent U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazards Board (CSB). So, under pressure, did BP. So did the Steelworkers, who represent the unionized workers at Texas City and other area refineries.
What various probes found was appalling. And in the years since the blast, some things have changed in terms of safety and health at oil refineries – and much hasn’t. Key findings include, but are not limited to:
BP management consistently emphasized output over safety. Citing management’s absolute refusal to bargain on safety issues in contract talks, the Steelworkers say that attitude permeates the petrochemical industry, including BP’s successor at the plant, Marathon Oil.
The oil industry had and still has a self-reported safety record of an accident each week. A few are fatal. All cause millions in damage. Many cause injuries.
Several years after Texas City, a Tesoro refinery in Washington State blew up, killing eight workers. An Aug. 2012 catastrophic pipe failure released a hot vapor cloud of flammable fluid from a Chevron plant in Richmond, Calif.
Nineteen workers barely escaped serious injury and death and 15,000 people in the surrounding areas needed medical treatment. A June 2013 explosion of a vapor cloud of flammable petroleum gases at a Louisiana plant released more than 62,000 pounds of toxic chemicals, caused a serious fire, killed two workers and injured more than 100 people. Those are the most-obvious examples.
Many oil plant workers, including dozens at Texas City, are non-union contract workers, and ill-trained. That’s continued under Marathon. Trailers for and operations at Texas City were too close to dangerous storage tanks and machinery, including the explosion site.
Understaffing at OSHA was and is part of the problem. Texas City never had a top-to-bottom Process Safety Management (PSM) inspection of all its refinery systems, their safety and how they interacted. OSHA is so short of qualified inspectors that the average U.S. refinery would get a PSM inspection every 120 years.
The petrochemical industry claims it operates safely. Its lobby, the American Petroleum Institute, points to low fatality rates and small releases of toxic gases and liquids. API overlooks the fact that in such self-reporting to OSHA, refineries routinely underreport what actually happens, independent studies show. And API has stonewalled the Steel Workers in negotiations, union leaders say.
All this is important. The U.S. economy still runs on petroleum products and refinery disasters not only kill and injure people and cause billions of dollars in damage but also cramp the nation’s capacity to produce gasoline, heating oil, diesel fuel, jet fuel and hydrocarbons that go into everything from plastic wrap to pipes and tubing.
Workers talk about current conditions
In an interview with Press Associates Union News Service, members of Steelworkers Local 13-1, the local for union workers at Texas City and other area plants, described the conditions there now, what improved just after the explosion – and the backsliding since.
Dale Battista, Greg Lahner, Earl Reed, John Madden, Laura McCollum, Laurie Kelso and Kim Stein are all heavily involved in job safety and health issues at the plant as local leaders, inspectors and members of the local’s safety and health committee. One was the union’s representative on the independent investigation panel BP was forced to name after the 2005 blast.
In the immediate months after the explosion and the investigations, the workers told PAI, “we wrote 20 process safety management policies for the plant, straight from the OSHA handbook – and started with employee participation.”
Federal law requires workers have a voice on health and safety issues, especially when an accident occurs, and often the union is that voice. It also requires firms conduct health and safety programs and training in consultation and cooperation with their workers.
For a while, as long as OSHA kept sending monthly inspectors and as long as the independent chemical board was probing, BP grudgingly followed safety recommendations. There have been no job safety deaths at Texas City since 2005. But OSHA had to further fine BP in 2009 because the oil giant still failed to fulfill many of the safety measures.
And what the USW members at Texas City told PAI was that even before BP sold the plant to Marathon, the oil giant was reneging on consultation and cooperation. “In 2011, they stopped doing top training” of plant workers on safety and health issues at the aging refinery, Lahner said. “We said ‘Good God.'”
The response, first from BP and later from Marathon, was, in essence “the regulators are off our backs” after OSHA’s record-breaking fines against BP – $72 million combined in 2005 and 2009 – and after the independent Chemical Safety Board closed its investigation, too, he added.
“When they closed the OSHA settlement agreement, then things started to take a dive. Up until then, we met with OSHA once a month and BP had to give progress reports,” said McCollum. “When the feds went away and the CSB closed its investigation,” BP started to let things slide.
Things got only worse when BP sold the Texas City plant to Marathon. “Everybody heard Marathon say ‘We’re not BP. We don’t have to do it that way,'” another worker said, referring to agreements BP made for improvements.
“Employee participation was good, but when Marathon came in, they didn’t respect it at all,” Lahner says. Adds another worker: “We’ve heard they’re not reporting things they should,” especially hazards in primary containment vessels.
One symbol of the continued safety problems at Texas City: Post-blast photos showed the trailers that housed workers and services torn to shreds. The trailers were too close to dangerous facilities and flying shards of metal and glass from the trailers injured dozens. Marathon has replaced the trailers, one worker told PAI-with tents.
“The API says tents won’t crush us, but API doesn’t address flying objects” from explosions “and numerous people have gotten hurt since,” another adds. Marathon often threatens discipline or retaliation against workers who raise safety questions, they told PAI.
Things are so bad that local 13-1 contacted not just OSHA, but the National Labor Relations Board. It told NLRB’s regional office Marathon is violating the safety agreement with the local, which it inherited, by barring union participation in safety inspections.
Marathon’s reaction? “If we strike” over safety issues, the firm “has already told us they’re going to bring in replacement workers,” Lahner says. “Now we’re back at the point where our program is just correcting hazards and assessing risks. And they” – Marathon – “want to blame the workers,” he says.
Photo: Before this 2005 blast killed 15 workers and injured 170, an internal BP report had said that workers at the Texas City plant had “an exceptional degree of fear.” One worker had died at the plant about every 18 months for the previous 30 years. In 2002, the company decided not to upgrade key safety equipment in order to save $150,000. Abrahm Lustgarten/ProPublica.org