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EPA Should Heed Chemical Safety Experts on CA Oil Refinery Rules

by Taylor Smith-Hams

August 6, 2015

On August 6, 2012, a massive fire rocked an oil refinery in Richmond, California. Three years later, we're still fighting for stronger safety standards to protect all Americans from chemical disasters.

Chevron Refinery Fire, Richmond, CA

Smoke billows into the air over the San Francisco Bay as a fire rages at a Chevron oil refinery in the city of Richmond. Photo by Jonas Bengtsson / Creative Commons.

Three years ago today, a pipe rupture at Chevron’s Richmond, California refinery released a flammable vapor cloud that, when it ignited, injured six employees and endangered 13 more in a fireball. The incident also resulted in a shelter-in-place advisory in the surrounding cities of Richmond, San Pablo and North Richmond and forced more than 15,000 residents to seek medical attention in the disaster’s aftermath.

In its investigation, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) found that Chevron failed to identify the corrosion that caused the pipe to rupture. According to the CSB’s investigation report, the damage went unnoticed due to Chevron’s failure to fully implement its own internal inspections and recommendations on preventing pipe failures. The CSB report also identified gaps in Chevron’s safety culture, including pressure to continue operations despite hazards and poor equipment maintenance.

This catastrophic incident prompted California to propose new safety rules at refineries. An Interagency Refinery Task Force proposed amendments to two existing regulations, the California Accidental Release Prevention (CalARP) Program and the Process Safety Management (PSM) regulations. A formal rulemaking process will begin this fall, with the aim of finalization by mid-2016.

The proposed amendments could require refineries to implement the Hierarchy of Hazard Controls, a structure that obliges facilities to eliminate or minimize hazards in priority order by adopting safer processes. The amendments also call for the inclusion of employees at all levels of the safety program, increased public access to information, and consequences for delays in implementing safety standards.

Most significantly, the amendments focus on safeguards to prevent incidents from occurring in the first place. The goal is to reduce the possibility of a catastrophic accident to “as low as reasonably practicable.” This precautionary approach is critical to reducing incidents and stands in contrast to existing policies around the country that rely primarily on emergency response after a disaster has already happened.

Yet following pressure from the petrochemical industry lobby, the draft October 2014 rules have been significantly watered down, as seen in a revised version released in May 2015. In a letter to the California Department of Industrial Relations, the CSB criticized the 2015 draft. The CSB concluded, “the current draft, if finalized without the recommended changes, will not be effective in reducing risk of incidents at refineries.”

If the weaker May 2015 version of the rules is adopted, it would be an affront to the workers and communities living near refineries in California. The February 18 catastrophic explosion at an ExxonMobil refinery in Torrance, California—which shared strong parallels with the Chevron fire—clearly demonstrates that stronger refinery rules are urgently needed in California.

Given the Obama administration’s longstanding support of increasing safety standards at petrochemical facilities, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) should be leading California on a path to stronger rules. Instead, the EPA is dragging its feet on new chemical facility safety standards.

If it follows the CSB’s recommendations, California could serve as a model to the nation. In a 2014 Request for Information document, the EPA specifically mentioned the recommendations for improved facility safety made by the CSB in the aftermath of the Chevron refinery fire as a potential national model. It’s time to incorporate that wisdom into the agency’s response to President Obama’s Executive Order on chemical plant safety.

As the EPA moves to propose rules next month, why not nationalize the October 2014 draft of the California refinery rules? Such an action would increase protections for all Americans while ensuring that the rules are not undermined at the state level.

CSB founder Dr. Gerald Poje emphasizes that federal agencies must be “cognizant of what’s happening in California” and embrace it as a model for improving process safety. To allow the California standards to be enacted in their weakened state would be a “shameful loss of advantage for the federal body” and could be detrimental to national rules.

Take action and tell President Obama to use his authority and make sure the EPA issues strong national chemical plant safety rules.

Taylor Smith-Hams

By Taylor Smith-Hams

Taylor Smith-Hams is the toxics intern at Greenpeace USA.

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