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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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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