LOHP a Catalyst for Change in the Wake of Richmond Refinery Fire

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The Chevron Refinery on August 6, 2012. The Richmond Chevron fire nearly killed 19 workers and ultimately caused over 15,000 area residents to seek medical attention for symptoms related to exposure to the fire's combustion products. Photo by Stephen Schiller.

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The Refinery Safety Collaborative.

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Mike Wilson (left) at a LOHP organized community forum, listens to speakers from the Richmond community.

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Andres Soto, Organizador Comunitario en Richmond, assists with the microphone at the forum.
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An interim April 2013 investigation report by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) cites the rupture of a corroded pipe as the primary cause of the Chevron refinery fire in Richmond on August 6, 2012. But the CSB concluded that the catastrophe that enveloped 19 workers in an explosive vapor cloud, and caused over 15,000 area residents to seek medical care for symptoms related to exposure to the fire’s combustion products, was largely due to a management culture at Chevron that ignored preventive maintenance and safety problems. This finding was corroborated in a separate report prepared by the Labor Occupational Health Program (LOHP) for California Governor Jerry Brown’s Interagency Taskforce on Refinery Safety.

LOHP’s March 13 summary report identifies key issues and makes recommendations regarding refinery safety and environmental performance and is based on the views of labor and community representatives and public fire agency officials, notes author and Director, Michael Wilson.

The Richmond refinery has used an increasingly corrosive blend of crude oil feedstock since 1985, the CSB reported. Yet “maintenance and safety problems identified by refinery workers are often not corrected for months or years,” and “it is unknown whether and to what extent the refineries are tracking and acting on leading, lagging, and near-miss performance indicators,” notes the summary report by LOHP.  It concludes that “the evidence…suggests that health, safety, and environmental performance remain tangential—not central—to the primary mission of the refinery industry.”

In addition to the findings released in March 2013, Wilson and colleagues were instrumental in forming an innovative refinery safety collaborative that officially launched in January 2013 and consists of the United Steelworkers (USW) International Union and USW Local 5, Communities for a Better Environment, the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the national and California BlueGreen Alliance, and LOHP.

The Collaborative found common ground, according to Wilson, on the need “to draw attention to the state’s permissive regulatory setting and the lack of investment in safety and maintenance by the state’s refineries.” Charlotte Brody of the BlueGreen Alliance has engaged her organization’s 15 million members united by 14 unions and environmental groups in the Collaborative’s launch because “we think of the near-miss in Richmond as the beginning of real change in this industry, and that California can and should set an example for the nation.”

The recommendations summarized by Wilson stem from his work with the Collaborative along with a series of LOHP-facilitated meetings designed to give voice to the health and safety concerns of refinery workers and the community.

“Listening panels” in Southern and Northern California were commissioned by the Governor’s Interagency Task Force on Refinery Safety and conducted by LOHP. Charlotte Chang, LOHP project scientist, helped convene the first meeting in Southern California on March 13 where twenty-five steelworkers and community members met with the Governor’s team.  

“There have been historical tensions between the unions and community groups over various issues in the refineries,” reports Chang. It turned out that LOHP’s reputation was the critical element in bringing the parties to the table, particularly the USW and BlueGreen Alliance. “We’ve had good experiences with the USW over the years, and they remember that,” says Chang. “It was essential to the dynamics of the partnership early on.”

Chang is keeping her eye on the issues that are important to making the partnerships work. “My role is in helping to bring the partnership together and make it successful by ensuring that things are transparent and that we establish a trusting environment.”

Chang’s background is in evaluating and facilitating multi-stakeholder interests that have coalesced around worker health and safety. The main questions Chang asks now are, “How do we effect enduring change, what are the best practices, what other models exist to better regulate and manage refinery safety?”

As Wilson points out, “Refinery accidents are common in California. There were 41 separate incidents between the August 6 fire and January 2013, and most of those events caused unexpected releases of toxic substances and potentially endangered workers and the public. I think there is inattention in this industry to process safety.” 

Wilson concurs with the conclusions of the April CSB report. He calls for the U.S. to switch the responsibility for demonstrating safety to the managers of hazardous industries, following the approach adopted in the European Union in the wake of a massive industrial release of dioxins in Seveso, Italy, in 1976. Since then, the EU has instigated new rules requiring refineries to demonstrate adherence to rigorous health, safety, and environmental standards as a condition of operating their plants, LOHP noted in a press release. The process is overseen by safety experts who serve as government auditors. This “Safety Case” approach has produced a marked decline in industrial accidents in the EU and other countries where it has been adopted.

Funding for the summary report by LOHP was provided by the California Department of Industrial Relations.

Related story links:

The report by LOHP “Refinery Safety in California: Labor, Community and Fire Agency Views
(LOHP reissued their report on June 4, 2013, with new information that includes the views of the California Building and Construction Trades, key findings of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board's (CSB) interim report on the Chevron fire, and updated information provided by labor unions, community groups, and fire agency officials that originally appeared in the first edition of the report.)

Chevron Refinery Investigative Photos

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