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Beefing Up Refinery Regulations

Safety: California panel calls for inherently safer systems

by Jeff Johnson
February 24, 2014 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 92, Issue 8

Credit: CSB
A Chevron refinery accident in 2012 sent 15,000 resident to hospitals and led to a state examination of safety regulations.
Photo of the aftermath of the Chevron refinery fire and explosion in Richmond, Calif., August 2012.
Credit: CSB
A Chevron refinery accident in 2012 sent 15,000 resident to hospitals and led to a state examination of safety regulations.

A state panel is calling for a major overhaul of California refinery regulations in the wake of a 2012 explosion and fire at Chevron’s refinery in Richmond, Calif. The incident prompted thousands of nearby residents to seek medical treatment.

After an 18-month review, the Interagency Working Group on Refinery Safety is recommending improvements in emergency response, accident prevention and investigations, and workplace safety. California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) created the panel, which consists of representatives from 13 key state agencies, shortly after the 2012 accident. The group aims to improve worker and community safety through better oversight of the state’s 15 major petrochemical refineries.

The panel’s recommendations appear to respond to the immediate cause of the Chevron accident—a ruptured, badly corroded pipe that the company knew about for a decade but did not replace. The explosion and resulting fire burned for hours and sent some 15,000 Richmond residents to hospitals.

The working group urges refineries to implement inherently safer systems, as well as to conduct periodic assessments of their safety culture. Likewise, the U.S. Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board’s report on the Chevron incident also underscored that inherently safer approaches would have at a minimum required replacement of the corroded pipe.

But inherently safer system requirements have long been a bugaboo for industry and earned the ire of U.S. industry associations. In a Jan. 23 letter to President Barack Obama, 13 business groups, including the American Petroleum Institute and the American Chemistry Council, said they strongly oppose mandates “to assess or implement so-called inherently safer technologies.”

They were responding to proposals under consideration by an accident-related working group appointed by Obama that is also seeking to improve chemical plant safety. Another industrial disaster, which occurred at West, Texas, in April 2013, triggered the creation of the federal working group.

California’s next step will be putting the recommendations into effect. Brown has created a task force made up of representatives from state and local enforcement offices and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to oversee implementation.



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