Aging Equipment, Repeated Safety Violations Put Refinery Workers At Risk, Say Critics

PHOTO Matt Gumbel, 34,
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The nation's refineries are plagued by recurring equipment failures and sometimes-fatal fires, explosions and chemical releases that in many cases could have been prevented, an investigation by the Center for Public Integrity has found.

The investigation has implications for workers at refineries and people who live near them. As reported in a joint ABC News/Center for Public Integrity investigation, industry and government insiders are particularly anxious about the potential for mishaps that involve a highly toxic chemical known as hydrofluoric acid.

CLICK HERE to watch Nightline's report on aging refineries and the risks of hydrofluoric acid.

Documents reviewed by the Center for Public Integrity, along with interviews of top safety officials, show that an inherently dangerous industry has become even more dangerous because of industry resistance to safety fixes and the aging of the nation's 148 refineries, which are being pushed harder than ever. "We have decreasing staff levels, disinvestment in safety, a lack of training, and accidents or near-misses -- indicators of catastrophe -- being ignored," said Rafael Moure-Eraso, chairman of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board.

CLICK HERE to read the Center for Public Integrity's full story.

Charles Drevna, president of the National Petrochemical and Refiners Association, said the industry's safety record is "better than most." The Center's investigation, however, shows that the problems are pervasive. Since the beginning of 2009, for example, at least 80 fires have broken out at 59 refineries. Industry experts acknowledge that even minor fires can foreshadow major accidents.

CLICK HERE for a slideshow about explosions, fires and chemical clouds at oil refineries.

Over the past decade, at least 7,600 accidental chemical releases from refineries have been reported to the U.S. Coast Guard's National Response Center; about half were blamed on equipment failure. And a Center for Public Integrity analysis shows that the refining industry contests safety citations at a higher rate than other large industries, allowing companies to put off improvements and save money.

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Critics say these problems are compounded by a regulatory system that can be easily manipulated.

"Right now, it's a catch-me-if-you-can system, and the consequences of being caught are relatively small," said Michael Silverstein, a former federal regulator of workplace safety who now heads the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries Division of Occupational Safety and Health.

Tesoro Refinery Explosion and Fire

Among the accidents examined by the Center for Public Integrity was one at the Tesoro refinery in Anacortes, Washington, on April 2, 2010.

That evening, 34-year-old Matt Gumbel and six co-workers cautiously returned to service a stack of giant, radiator-like tubes filled with volatile hydrocarbons. The tubes, known as heat exchangers, tended to leak, especially during start-up, and workers sometimes armed themselves with long, steam-spewing lances to keep any escaping vapors from igniting.

Nearby, another stack of exchangers droned at full temperature and pressure.

Not long after midnight, welds on one of the active exchangers suddenly blew, engulfing Matt and his six coworkers in a fireball of naphtha, a mixture of liquid hydrocarbons. The inferno melted aluminum up to 100 feet away. Four workers died instantly.

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