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Lessons (Not) Learned From the Chevron Fire

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Wed, Apr 10, 2013 at 7:43 pm

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Lessons (Not) Learned From the Chevron Fire

On Friday, federal accident investigators told California legislators that the state’s patchwork of oil industry regulations needs a serious overhaul. The Chevron fire that produced a toxic cloud and sent 15,000 people to the hospital could have been prevented, but the system was reactive and not designed to foresee and forestall problems, said the U.S. Chemical Safety Board. Duh. The board didn’t need 18 months to come to that conclusion. But Don Holstrom, lead investigator for the board, did put his finger on one problem: the need to bump up the number, skills, and authority of refinery inspectors.

Something smells when an agency purposefully cripples its own enforcement abilities. One good example is the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC). The DTSC exists to protect communities like Richmond from toxic harm. And for years, it’s done a very poor job of it.

The DTSC has broad statutory authority to sanction these giant chemical plants for toxic releases like the one that Chevron caused in its fire, but it consistently refuses. Better yet, the DTSC should play a pro-active role in preventing harm as the department is supposed to do. So, you’d think the DTSC would view having refinery inspectors on staff as a high priority—inspectors that could be given broad latitude to inspect the guts of a refinery where hazardous substances slosh around and not just its excrement. Evidently, the DTSC thinks the fewer refinery inspectors the better.

The DTSC has only two refinery inspectors for the entire state and one of them is green and in training. The DTSC used to have more. But when other inspectors from its refinery unit retired or left, the DTSC didn’t bother to replace them. Nine vacancies in the unit handing refinery inspections were the result. Two scientist positions were approved for the refinery inspection unit and then inexplicably redirected to other positions and regions.

Refinery inspections are the most complex kind and the scientists that do them sometimes take a week to complete them. These scientists know the ins and outs of dealing with refineries. The DTSC maintains that any scientist can conduct a refinery inspection, but that just isn’t true. “Anyone who says that all DTSC scientists can conduct them and are trained to do them is either lying or out of their mind,” says one DTSC career investigator.

Under the direction of Chief Deputy Director Odette Madriago positions can be cut or simply re-directed, the investigator said. On top of that, “Odette has put in place the strictest travel requirements of all CAL EPA.” The inspectors and investigators that have to travel have to fill out a lengthy document and have to get approval from their supervisor before they can go do an inspection or investigation. “These travel restrictions have allowed polluters to go unchecked and unregulated,” the investigator said.

One explanation is budgets are tight. Another is that it isn’t in the interest of someone like Ms. Madriago to regulate an industry in which she invests. She’s invested up to $100,000 in Chevron and in BP Amoco. Why regulate these refineries and sanction them millions of dollars that could affect their stock price?

Both Ms. Madriago and DTSC Director Debbie Raphael have taken to meeting behind closed doors with refinery executives, say DTSC sources. Normally, when an issue is discussed the DTSC official most involved is invited in to participate. Not anymore. “Ever since Debbie’s been here, Odette goes with Debbie everywhere to take these tours on oil refineries,” said the investigator. “They are inseparable. Odette is always there. They meet with refinery officials without the knowledge of the regulators behind closed doors.” A visit by Ms. Raphael and Ms. Madriago to a Chevron refinery last fall irked inspectors who were never told. “We show up at a refinery and we have to hear it from the city manager or CEO that Debbie and Odette were there,” said one inspector. “We find out when we go.”

Now that manpower is tight, inspections are cursory because they are rushed—and that endangers health and safety, he said. The inspector proposed a program of cross-training between regions so scientists could perform inspections in their own regions. The proposal didn’t even get a cursory response from DTSC’s director. “You just have to put this into perspective, we aren’t robots, we’re human beings,” said the inspector. “You put a lot of stress on inspectors and things get missed. There wasn’t any thorough inspecting going on, how can there be?”

Is it any wonder that California’s refineries experienced 41 new accidents, leaks, chemical releases, fires, break-downs and other failures since the Richmond fire last August? That’s about two a week, according to a new coalition spearheaded by UC Berkeley’s Labor Occupational Health Program that did the research and is calling for a new system of regulation.

With the right resources, DTSC sources say inspectors could help make sure a refinery’s operations were safe. “In some cases, the facility might have some device that is not properly working and hazardous waste might be escaping,” said the investigator. “Corroded pipes are in that ballpark.” Inspectors need to examine an entire facility to make sure what the facility claims about the content of the hazardous waste it generates at the other end is true, he said.

But instead of emphasizing this, Ms. Raphael is dismantling a pollution source reduction program that encouraged businesses to switch out harmful chemicals and use safer technology in favor of reassigning personnel without the appropriate skills to develop rules for manufacturing greener products. “Perhaps Odette is so hell-bent on eliminating the source reduction program because the program has history targeted refineries,” said one DTSC scientist. “Refineries have not appreciated the attention and have complained that we unfairly target them.”

The last thing that is needed is another blue-ribbon commission the DTSC can hide behind like the one Governor Brown formed to study the issue of refinery regulation. The DTSC began gathering refinery profiles more than a decade ago in an initial step to regulating the industry, a tacit admission that the agency could already be doing far more than it is. Then the industry’s lobbying killed it on the grounds of national security.

No, we need a system where regulators enforce existing laws, prioritize their core responsibilities, and publicly provide information in real time on company audits, fines, and regulatory actions taken by all involved agencies in one central, easily accessed database.

And we need their managers to get out of the way. The day the Chevron fire happened, one inspector was scheduled to take vacation. “I remember saying I can cancel my vacation and my supervisor said I might as well take my vacation. It was business as usual. I didn’t think it was right.” Instead, he said the department has blinders on, slapping down inspectors who want to take a more holistic approach. “Don’t worry about the fuel system or this production unit over here,” he said. “That is what we are told.”

Shame on California—allegedly the most progressive state in the nation—for not already having a refinery strike force of inspectors across agencies working together on assessments of a refinery’s structural integrity, from corroded pipes to fugitive emissions. And shame on California for not taking some players off the existing team—players with financial conflicts of interest like Odette Madriago that may have broken the law.

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