With New Inspectors, Coalition Calls on California to Step Up Refinery Regulations

A coalition welcomed the addition of 19 new Cal/OSHA inspectors in the state budget. They urged inspectors to adopt a new, comprehensive regulatory framework requiring refineries to report on the maintenance and health, safety and environmental measures.

June 21, 2013

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

JUNE 21, 2013
Contact: Mike Wilson, Director
Labor Occupational Health Program
University of California, Berkeley
mpwilson@berkeley.edu
510-333-1460 (cell)

WITH NEW INSPECTORS, COALITION CALLS ON CALIFORNIA TO STEP UP REFINERY REGULATIONS

BERKELEY (6/21/13) — The addition of 19 new Cal/OSHA inspectors in the new state budget is welcomed by a coalition of labor, community, environmental and academic organizations working on refinery safety and health problems in California. The new positions will increase the total number of Cal/OSHA staff who oversee the state’s 15 refineries and 1,680 hazardous industrial facilities from 7 to 26.

“Adding 19 new positions will give Cal/OSHA a stronger presence in the refineries, and that’s positive for refinery workers and for the people who live in the communities surrounding refineries. It’s appropriate that most of these positions are paid for by the industry itself,” said Mike Smith of the United Steelworkers Union, Local 5, headquartered in Martinez.

To be effective, however, the refinery coalition believes the Cal/OSHA inspectors will need a new, comprehensive regulatory framework that—to start—would require refineries and other hazardous industries to report to regulators and to the public how well they are maintaining their facilities and investing in health, safety and environmental protection measures, on an on-going basis.

This conclusion echoes one of many recommendations made by the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board in its April 2013 interim report on the Chevron, Richmond refinery fire, which injured 19 workers and caused some 15,000 area residents to seek medical attention for symptoms related to smoke exposure.

The coalition concluded that substantial regulatory changes will be needed to support the expanded group of 26 inspectors. With 1,680 hazardous industrial facilities in the state, each inspector will be responsible for about 64 facilities—a potentially overwhelming workload, when some plants are as big and complex as an oil refinery.

“We don’t want to create a situation that amounts to dropping these new inspectors into a shark tank,” said Greg Karras of Communities for a Better Environment. “To protect workers and the public, the inspectors need both the authority and the time to ensure that companies prioritize investments in health and safety.”

At present, it is the responsibility of Cal/OSHA inspectors to find safety and health violations during visits to hazardous industrial sites; companies are not required to proactively provide information on preventive maintenance programs, for example, which are a foundation of safe industrial operations.

According to the coalition, in addition to instilling greater transparency and accountability in the industry, a new regulatory framework will need the capability to assess more meaningful penalties for poor maintenance performance, and—to be most effective—will need a way to integrate the various state and local agencies that currently oversee a patchwork of regulatory programs for refineries.

A June report issued by UC Berkeley’s Labor Occupational Health Program (http://lohp.org/projects/refinery_safety.html) identified over 20 elements of such a framework, which included:

  • Requiring a comprehensive and ongoing audit by California refineries of corrosion damage and making the results of the audit accessible online to the public;
  • Requiring refineries and other hazardous industries to meet health, safety and environmental performance standards as a condition of operation;
  • Implementing mandatory, rigorous preventive maintenance programs at all refineries, overseen by a joint labor-management-government body whose activities would be made accessible online to the public.

“It’s critical to have the additional oversight to ensure safe and healthy working conditions at our state’s refineries. These additional inspectors are needed now more than ever, as California refiners consider new sources of crude oil that present potentially greater health and safety risks to workers and residents near refineries.” said Diane Bailey of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The refinery coalition is made up of the United Steelworkers Union Local 5, the United Steelworkers International, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Communities for a Better Environment, the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, the BlueGreen Alliance, and UC Berkeley’s Labor Occupational Health Program.