Utah's Unstable Oil Refineries | Cover Story | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

January 27, 2010 News » Cover Story

Utah's Unstable Oil Refineries 

(Un) Natural Disaster: Preventing the next refinery blast that could rock Utah.

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One loud explosion knocked pictures off Judy Averett´s walls. When she ran outside her Woods Cross home on Nov. 4, 2009, she saw black clouds rising from the ground directly in front of her, to the south and to the north. “I saw smoke from Flying J to Silver Eagle to Holly,” Averett says, listing the oil refineries that surround her neighborhood.

Linda Wood wasn’t in her home during the explosion that mostly destroyed it, but Rusty, her beagle mutt, and Rosy, a basset-dachshund mix, rode out the blast in the Wood home — just 500 feet from the source. When they were found together later that day several blocks from the epicenter, Wood says, “I started petting Rusty and broken glass came out of his hair.”

Rusty and Rosy survived the ordeal, a 100-foot flame ball and explosion reverberating as far away as Layton. In Wood´s house, the shock wave knocked kitchen cupboards off the walls, spilling their contents; it blew out all the windows and doors; it slammed the house off its foundation; it jarred the attic slightly askew; and it broke a toilet upstairs, flooding the floors below. At other nearby homes, curbs and foundations cracked and nails were sucked out of the wall. All that, in a flash.

Miraculously, the 9:15 a.m. explosion that damaged hundreds of homes didn´t injure a soul, not even workers. An insurance company is handling 271 claims from surrounding homeowners, including one bill for a dog with hearing loss. The source of the explosion was Silver Eagle Refinery, where according to official preliminary reports, a 10-inch hydrogen pipe failed, releasing the highly flammable gas, which then exploded with bomblike force. It created a power outage that knocked the other refineries offline, forcing an emergency burn-off from their flares, fueling those usually small flickers into giant flames spewing polluted smog into the air visible for several hours after the explosion.

This was the first refinery explosion in Utah to damage property and endanger people outside the refinery gates, but neighbors worry it won’t be the last.

Refineries make up only a small portion of facilities that the U.S. Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) is expected to monitor, and yet more than half of its investigations in 2009 were of refinery incidents. Of those 15 CSB investigations in 2009, three were at Utah refineries.

Silver Eagle has not challenged preliminary findings of the blast´s cause.

Accidents at Utah Refineries

In the past 10 years, Utah’s five refineries themselves — as required by various environmental laws or other interested parties — have reported fires, explosions, chemical releases and spills, both large and small, on average once every nine days, according to reports maintained by Utah Department of Environmental Quality (For all 430 reports of incidents at Utah's five refineries made to the Utah Department of Environmental Quality over the last 10 years, download the Incident Report XLS Spreadsheet).

Some Woods Cross residents blame the city for allowing their neighborhood to be built so close to Silver Eagle. Others blame Utah Occupational Safety & Health (UOSH, but often referred to as OSHA) for being weak and ineffectual. Still, others blame refinery operators for chasing profits at the expense of safety, while a few feel exasperated by all those entities, none of which can say with certainty if any inspecting agency is currently capable and responsible for ensuring pipe integrity, and which one will ensure pipe safety in the future. Most say UOSH should inspect pipe thickness and integrity, but a UOSH manager tells City Weekly that’s not its responsibility.

Woods Cross resident Alison Pickett, who started the Facebook group “WX Blast Zone” hopes her neighborhood can spur change. “We, as taxpaying citizens, have to become so much more aware because we have a feeling that we’re paying taxes and people are watching out for us, but this is the perfect example of how that’s not happening.”

Pressure Building

Like all U.S. refineries, Utah’s facilities are aging. The last U.S. refinery to be built was constructed in 1976, while all of Utah’s refineries were built prior to 1950. A new refinery today might require about $2 billion in start-up capital, industry sources have told City Weekly.

Utah’s five refineries are located in Davis and northern Salt Lake counties. Mapped from north to south, the refineries are operated by Holly, Silver Eagle, Flying J, Chevron and Tesoro. At 58,000 barrels per day, Tesoro is Utah’s largest refinery, though it is smaller than 94 other refineries in the country. Utah’s smallest, Silver Eagle, at 10,250 barrels per day, is ranked 130 out 143 refineries nationwide in terms of capacity, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

For the past decade, Utah refineries have been in flux, installing new units to comply with stricter air quality requirements and upgrading facilities to increase capacity. According to the Utah Division of Air Quality, Utah’s five refineries have been granted 76 new permits since 2000. Additionally, three refineries have changed ownership in that time: the British Petroleum refinery became Tesoro, Inland Refining became Silver Eagle, and Phillips 66 became Holly.

While the number of UOSH inspections have decreased in the past five years, the number of fires and explosions has increased. Between 2000 and 2004, UOSH inspected the refineries 13 times, and only two incidents were large enough to gather news attention: Tesoro exploded as a result of a power outage on Feb. 24, 2002, the final day of the Olympics, and an asphalt tank exploded and burned at Silver Eagle on May 23, 2003.

But between 2005 and the end of 2009, UOSH conducted only three inspections at the refineries even though nine incidents gathered news media attention. Those included a Jan. 12, 2009, explosion at Silver Eagle that injured four workers and prompted an evacuation of the neighborhood. Almost all of the major fires and explosions in recent years have been at three refineries: Silver Eagle, Tesoro and Holly.

“[Silver Eagle] basically had a fire there once per year while we lived there [from 2003 until November 2009],” Linda Wood says. Husband Bill Wood adds, “With each fire, the neighborhood got angrier and angrier.”

Union workers at neighboring refineries were getting frustrated, too. Silver Eagle is the only Utah refinery without an organized work force.

In January 2009, Utah’s United Steelworkers members walked picket lines during contract negotiations with the refiners, as did Steelworkers across the country. The usual wage increases and benefits were at issue, but the workers were also demanding safer working conditions. Julie Holzer is a staff representative for 425 of Utah’s organized refinery workers, roughly half the total. She complains that the refineries’ prescheduled shutdowns for internal safety and maintenance inspections represent some of the best and worst aspects of refinery safety. Workers and management who actually work in the facility are absolutely devoted to safe operations and are qualified to keep the facilities safe, she says, but mind-numbing overtime is frequently part of the internal inspections because the operators lose profits while the facility is not in production. “Overtime is now the norm,” she says, “much of it forced.”

Dangerous Neighbor

In 2010, it makes very little sense for the refineries to be located at the center of the Wasatch Front, Utah’s urban core. But the refineries are so old, their locations used to be the outskirts of Salt Lake City on the way to the lush farmland of Davis County. In the decades since they were built, however, suburban development has surrounded the facilities, and the once-open lands are now developed cities like Woods Cross, North Salt Lake and West Bountiful.

An oft-repeated chorus line from the local industry is that they were there first. That assertion, while correct, might imply the residents should have known what they were getting into, and it also speaks to the refiners’ predicament. The refineries, after all, cannot move. They are cemented to their current lots by economic forces.

Many residents, on the other hand, say that nobody warned them about the risks, especially explosions.

Until six years ago, Judy Averett’s property was bordered on the west by an open field about two blocks wide between her home on 800 West and Silver Eagle. After so many decades of no explosions or fires—at least none memorable—she says it seemed natural for those two blocks of grassy field to become a subdivision. “I think the refinery should have thought a little more ahead if there is something like a blast zone,” she says. “We never heard that in the 43 years we lived here.”

But now, two of her daughters live with their families closer to Silver Eagle than she does.

Averett isn’t alone. Bill and Linda Wood don’t think they got an exceptionally great deal on their 2,800 square-foot home when they built it six years ago, although their equal-price lot was larger than the others in the subdivision. They enjoy loud music and thought the refinery would be a good neighbor; one less person to complain about their own noise. There’s even a small park next door where 8-year-old daughter Kassadee can play.

All that stands between the Woods’ home and Silver Eagle is a railroad track, a 10-foot wall and a couple hundred feet. “It would have concerned me more if I knew that was a blast wall,” she says. “That might have caused me to pause [before purchasing it]. We thought it was a sound wall for the train.” The wall would have especially concerned her because it’s only half the height of the Woods´ two-story home. On the day of the explosion, the Woods were forced to move out all their possessions. “They gave us until tonight to get out,” she said that day, as neighbors and fellow members of the Latter-day Saints 5th Ward helped them. “They said a strong wind could take the top off.”

Gordon Curl declined to say what he paid for his home but admitted it was a screaming deal. “For south Davis County, it was the cheapest you could buy,” he says. Like so many others, Curl suspects the city may have failed in its duty to zone the neighborhood appropriately. “I think the city is still in the CYA [cover-your-ass] mode.”

Woods Cross City Manager Gary Uresk says the new subdivision between Silver Eagle and 800 West was rezoned in 1981. If the city undertook any due diligence before rezoning the property, the reports have been lost to the ages, he says. By the time developer Marvin Blosch bought the property and wanted to develop it about 20 years later, the city was in a tough spot.

While considering building permits for houses that were just hundreds of feet from Silver Eagle, Uresk says the city requested a report from Salt Lake City-based Redd Engineering regarding potential risk and hazards. That firm cited U.S. Housing & Urban Development lending standards, which would have not funded about 30 of the homes built closest to Silver Eagle. But the developer commissioned his own report, Uresk says, that cited standard building and fire codes that were more permissive. To avoid any risk of a lawsuit, Uresk says, the city had to approve the permits.

“The challenge is what was allowed by law was unsafe,” Lowry Redd, of Redd Engineering told the Woods Cross City Council on Jan. 5. His comments were in response to neighbor Curl, who’d asked in terse tones whether the Redd report had properly computed the blast zone. Redd admitted, “We did not analyze the refinery to look at concussion or blast zone.”

Why would that be? Redd told City Weekly, “I think the issues of [the city’s] legal jurisdiction overrode their interest in risk analysis. They got the answer that it wasn’t against the law [to build homes so close to a refinery], and that told them they didn’t have a right to stop the developer.”

Hard Hats, Ear Plugs

Some residents have no faith in the government’s ability to protect them. Linda Wood, for example, complains that UOSH lacks expertise in highly technical refinery operations. “[Occupational Safety and Health Administration] is only there for hard hats and earplugs,” she complains. And while that oversimplifies official findings, the CSB has complained that OSHA inspectors often lack adequate expertise. UOSH compliance manager Eldon Tryon admitted that issues like pipe thickness, which was central to the Silver Eagle explosion, “may not be within our jurisdiction or expertise, but there are other agencies that would be looking into that.”

That singular agency would seem to be the CSB, which doesn’t do pre-catastrophic inspections; its job is to identify root causes of catastrophes after they occur. Tryon speculated that another Utah Labor Commission division might be in charge of pipe thickness. Utah Division of Boiler and Elevator Safety Director Pete Hackford says, however, that his employees inspect only those pipes within two pressure valves of steam boilers located on refineries and everywhere else, but not pipes carrying 800 degrees Fahrenheit compressed hydrogen like the one that failed at Silver Eagle.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Industry watchers and insiders say the nation got a wakeup call in March 2005 when a British Petroleum refinery in Texas City, Texas, caused a series of explosions that killed 15 workers and injured 180 more. In March 2007, the CSB issued its seminal 341-page report on the explosion, containing criticism for the nation´s refiners, regulators and lawmakers, blaming not just one entity for the Texas City explosion but all of them for a series of systemic deficiencies.

One of the main targets of CSB was OSHA. Prior to the Texas City disaster, OSHA had not conducted a planned, comprehensive inspection of the facility in the previous seven years. CSB concluded that while OSHA had decent inspection protocols for highly hazardous facilities, those inspections “are infrequent and an insufficient number of [OSHA] inspectors are qualified to conduct them.” CSB also recommended that OSHA modify its traditional method of targeting facilities based on injury rates, because while chemical plants, including refineries, have lower injury rates than other industrial facilities, when they do blow, they blow big.

As a result of that 2007 report, a new National Emphasis Program was established in 2008 to bolster OSHA’s efforts to inspect refineries, which pose “low-frequency, high-consequence accidents.” Six inspectors from Utah were sent to a five-week training in Chicago. Nearly two years later, only one of Utah’s refineries—Holly—has received the special-emphasis, comprehensive review. The resulting inspection found 33 serious violations resulting in a $91,750 fine, more than double any fine a Utah refinery has received from UOSH in the past decade. Indeed, that fine accounts for more than half of all fines—$174,360—paid by the five refineries to OSHA for 106 serious violations, discovered during the past 11 partial inspections and eight complete inspections that occurred in the past decade. Tryon would not give a timeline for when the other four refineries might be inspected under the special-emphasis program.

UOSH, a division of the Labor Commission, monitors the safety of Utah’s roughly 75,000 workplaces, including high-risk facilities like the five refineries. It employs 19 compliance officers, or inspectors—10 focused on safety, nine on health—with a 2009 budget of $3.1 million, made up of state and federal funds. Six consultants assist small businesses with bolstering their workplace safety. A small division mandated by statute tracks labor statistics. Then there’s a director, compliance manager and operations manager. That’s the entire team. The division employs no engineers.

Operations manager Bill Adams says staffing levels for the 19 compliance officers were calculated based on worker population in 1985 and funding has not been available to add more inspectors since then.

Adams says refinery investigations are particularly labor intensive as compared to, say, a construction site. At least four inspectors are required for a complete refinery inspection, meanwhile tens of thousands of other workplaces keep churning, safely or not.

“We investigate any work-related fatality. Now, as far as accidents and that, if somebody calls in an accident saying somebody has a serious accident past the first digit, major broken bone, two or three people pass out and go to the hospital—we try to get to all of those that we can,” he says. “In a government agency, you do the best you can with what you got. Of course, we would like more people. That’s just a fact.”

CSB is barely larger, and it has jurisdiction over the entire country.

With 38 employees and an operating budget of $10.6 million, the U.S. General Accounting Office has identified an “investigative gap” between the hundreds of accidents CSB is supposed to investigate by law and how many are actually possible under budget constraints.

Self Interest

Lynn Westfall is the spokesman for Tesoro, which was praised in 2005 for building a natural-gas co-generation power plant attached to its Utah refinery. By maintaining its own relatively clean-burning power source, Tesoro is the only Utah refinery with a defense against power outages.

“A sudden power outage is probably one of the worst incidents that can happen at a refinery,” Westfall says. “You lose your controls, you lose your gauges, all of your control over the refinery. You need to do an immediate, emergency shutdown, and that’s a very dangerous thing to do.”

In response to an outage, refineries are designed to dump contents under pressure into the flare, burning off product. That can create a huge plume of black smoke, as was seen from Silver Eagle’s neighboring refineries when its November explosion caused a power outage. “By preventing a sudden loss of power, you get three paybacks from a ‘cogen’: it’s better for safety, the environment and also because the plant isn’t down, you’re still making money,” Westfall says.

Shutdowns and startups are stressful for a refinery, and they occur on a routine basis for safety and maintenance— not just power outages. Tesoro itself is under investigation by CSB for a Oct. 21, 2009, fire that local news reports said spread throughout a 200-yard radius. That occurred during startup of a crude unit. On Jan. 5, 2010, Tesoro had another fire. No one was injured in either incident.

Westfall says his company does not believe that further rules and regulations will ensure safety, but more inspections, he says, might do some good. “Knowing public concern—justifiable public concern—over the issues, if more inspections would help alleviate the problem, then that might serve a useful purpose.”

Dan Johnson, manager of government and public affairs for the Chevron refinery, says, “We have a philosophy that accidents don’t just happen.” Johnson points out that Chevron owns the land around its refinery and has prevented development of that land—mostly wetlands frequented by migratory birds—to create a buffer zone. That’s mostly been a precaution, however, because that refinery’s “extensive safety system” has prevented any newsworthy fires and explosions in the past 10 years. Among Utah refineries, only Flying J can make a similar claim.

That openness to increased government oversight was shared by Lee Peacock, president of the Utah Petroleum Association, the lobbying arm of the local industry. He says he understands that recent events have worried the public. “I think in the future that we as an industry will support having OSHA funded to a point where they can adequately do their job,” Peacock says. “Those discussions are ongoing, and it would be a little preliminary to speculate where that would go.”

Silver Eagle has hired outside engineering consultants ABS to do a root-cause analysis and recommend procedures that will exceed current safety regulations. The refinery has just hired a new vice president of refining and operations, Michael Redd, brother of Lowry Redd of Redd Engineering.

When asked after the Jan. 5 City Council meeting how, going forward, he would implement safety standards that would exceed what is mandated by law, Michael Redd admitted that he’s not an engineer nor is he an expert on refining or OSHA regulations (listen to the%uFFFDMichael Redd interview). City Weekly then asked to interview a Silver Eagle employee who was expert on OSHA regulations. Michael Redd said, “I’ll get back to you,” but never did.

A Holly representative on the “community care” line said the subject of the article— refinery safety—seemed too negative but that a representative would contact City Weekly if the company wished to comment. They never did. Flying J also did not return calls requesting comment.

Safer Now?

On Jan. 14, 2005, a pipe at Silver Eagle failed, expelling hydrogen and diesel fuel that caused 30- to 40-foot flames. Sound familiar? Though its impact was smaller, a failed pipe was then blamed for the fire, just as a failed pipe was just blamed in the November explosion.

Both the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) in 2003 and 2005 and the Center for American Progress in 2008 warned Utahns in formal reports that Flying J and Chevron refineries use highly toxic hydrofluoric acid in their refining processes. The chemical evaporates at 68 F and its mist remains toxic even after miles of travel. In their reports, both groups warned that terrorists could exploit the deadly chemical in refineries. Both groups estimate that 680,000 Utahns live within the worst-case-scenario impact zone of a major HF release. (Read the U.S. Public Interest Research Group's (PIRG) report on hydroflouoric acid and the Center for American Progress's report on hydroflouoric acid )

Local plants using HF have not received complete safety inspections in at least a decade.

Chevron’s last one from UOSH was on Jan. 25, 2000. Flying J’s is older than that but was so long ago that the data is not available on federal OSHA’s Website.

In regard to HF, Chevron’s Johnson says current alternatives to HF have risks, too. The company is hopeful that new technologies that are safer will emerge but stresses that its refinery adequately mitigates the risk—and has a safety record lacking major incidents to back up that claim. He also said the “worst-case scenario” figure of 680,000 is “not realistic” given the overlapping safety mechanisms in place to both detect and stop an HF release.

Meanwhile, the Silver Eagle refinery has delayed restarting its crude-oil unit operations. Pickett says she’d like to sell her home and move, but the explosions made clear that “the real estate we own is crap.”

While other Utah refineries, such as Holly, have purchased some surrounding property to clear their blast zones of residents, Silver Eagle hasn’t offered to buy-out any Woods Cross residents. None of the residents has filed a lawsuit against the refinery, but “people have looked into it,” Pickett says. The Woods are concerned a lawsuit from any party might delay the rebuilding process. They hope no one sues the city, which might then sue the refinery, tying up the process for years.

Most residents seem to agree on one thing: If Silver Eagle has even one more incident, either it will have to be shut down permanently, or it had better buy out the entire neighborhood. Some think the refinery should do buy-outs now.

Other large questions remain: If Silver Eagle’s pipes had been properly inspected after the 2005 pipe failure and resulting hydrogen fire, could the refinery have avoided the 2009 explosion?

And will the community regrettably be asking a similar question about Holly’s relatively minor hydrofluoric acid incidents on April 30 and August 15, 2008, if toxic HF mist poisons nearby neighbors?

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Jesse Fruhwirth

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