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Reaching For Plant Safety

Refineries: Chemical safety board proposal would shift accident prevention to companies

by Jeff Johnson
December 23, 2013 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 91, Issue 51

Credit: CSB
A fiery 2012 Chevron refinery accident in California that sickened thousands has prompted CSB to urge creation of a new prevention system.
An August 2012 fire at the Chevron Richmond, Calif., refinery.
Credit: CSB
A fiery 2012 Chevron refinery accident in California that sickened thousands has prompted CSB to urge creation of a new prevention system.

California could be a national test bed for overhauled refinery safety regulations if a proposal recommended by the Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) during a public meeting near Richmond, Calif., last week is adopted. The scheme is part of CSB’s draft report on an August 2012 refinery accident in California.

“We are here because we have a refinery safety problem in the U.S.,” said CSB Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso as he began the Dec. 16 hearing. CSB has issued dozens of unmet recommendations pertaining to deadly refinery accidents. Six of 13 current CSB investigations are of refinery accidents. Moure-Eraso added that 125 significant refinery safety incidents occurred in 2012, with 17 of them in California. Financial losses from U.S. refinery accidents are more than three times as high as losses for similar accidents in other developed countries, Moure-Eraso said, citing insurance industry figures.

Describing current U.S. refinery regulations as a “patchwork” of largely reactive rules, the CSB chairman urged that California adopt a new “safety case” system, similar to those used in Norway, the U.K., and Australia.

A safety case system calls for a regulated company to examine its own operations and prepare a report laying out how its manufacturing activities should be conducted and how safety standards should be ensured in order to reduce risks, the CSB draft report says. The quality of the company-prepared report should be overseen by a highly skilled, well-paid state regulator.

The board recommends that each of California’s 15 refineries be assigned an on-site inspector to approve that company’s report, conduct inspections, and oversee modifications that become necessary as production needs change.

CSB’s report strongly recommends that inspectors’ pay, training, and experience be on par with their industry counterparts. It notes, however, that California’s process safety office has but seven inspectors to oversee nearly 1,700 facilities, including the 15 refineries. Only one inspector has a technical background, the report says, adding that government safety officials in California are paid 33–48% less than their industry counterparts.

However, Moure-Eraso noted that California has recently hired 15 new inspectors to focus on refineries and a state review has recommended a shift to the safety case approach.

Chevron and the United Steelworkers, a union representing many refinery workers, are not commenting on the draft at this time.

The board’s recommendations spring from an August 2012 accident at Chevron’s Richmond refinery. Although no one was killed, several employees were injured by the fire and the resulting chemical emissions. Some 15,000 local residents sought treatment at San Francisco area hospitals after the accident. The cause of the accident was badly corroded piping that the company knew should have been replaced 10 years earlier, according to CSB (C&EN, April 22, page 11).

The report is a draft, Moure-Eraso stressed, and CSB will be accepting comments until Jan. 3, 2014. The board will formally adopt or modify the recommendations at a hearing in California on Jan. 15, 2014.


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