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

Industry can stall penalties and fixes despite rash of fires and explosions.

March 19, 2010, 1:41 PM

March 1, 2011 — -- 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.

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.

Paul Gumbel -- Matt's father, who also worked at the plant -- witnessed the explosion from about 150 yards away. The elder Gumbel seized his firefighting gear and raced toward the blaze.

He spotted a dead man and two women -- alive but badly burned. Then another man, still breathing but aflame. As Paul Gumbel tried to comfort the wounded, he kept thinking: Where's Matt?

Enshrouded in a fire blanket, Matt had managed to stumble away from the wreckage. But burns covered two-thirds of his body. Rushed by ambulance to the hospital, he survived 22 days before succumbing. Two other workers also later died of their injuries.

CLICK HERE to watch a Center for Public Integrity video about the death of Matt Gumbel.

When Paul Gumbel went back to work at Tesoro in June 2010, two months after the accident, he lasted five days. "I had a humongous feeling of dread about even going through the gate," he said. He began seeing a psychiatrist and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, a product of his horrific experience.

After taking medical leave, he returned to the refinery in October, but had another setback. A boiler backfired. It was nothing, really -- and everything. Paul now works in a less stressful environment in the Tesoro garage.

The heat exchanger that blew apart and killed Matt Gumbel was put into service in 1972, four years before Matt was born. According to the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries, Tesoro last examined welds on the device using a sophisticated method that could detect cracks in 1998. This was the only time in the exchanger's 38-year life that such an inspection had taken place, the department said; moreover, it found, Tesoro had tested fewer than 20 percent of the welds and focused on areas least susceptible to damage. Company records indicate that a planned 2008 inspection by Tesoro never took place, the department said.

The Department of Labor and Industries proposed a $2.4 million fine against Tesoro for last April's accident. Tesoro is appealing the citation, saying "many of the agency's conclusions are deeply flawed."

In a statement to the Center for Public Integrity, Tesoro said the heat exchanger that failed "was inspected regularly and was fully compliant with regulations and industry standards. The exchanger underwent external inspections once every two years and internal inspections in 1998 and again in 2005 . . ." State officials, however, say there is no evidence that the 2005 inspection was of the type that would have enabled the company to find cracks in the welds.

In its formal appeal of the state citation, the company denied that it had violated safety rules and said it might raise any number of defenses, including "unanticipated employee misconduct."

A lawsuit filed against Tesoro on February 9, 2011 by families of six of the dead workers claims that the company pushed its heat exchangers too hard, for too long, scrimping on inspections and ignoring signs of trouble. Among other things, the lawsuit alleges that in 2001, an exchanger similar to the one that ruptured last year "failed catastrophically as a result of thermal fatigue and crack propagation," but that Tesoro "willfully disregarded" a company recommendation to inspect other exchangers for the same sorts of flaws.

"The plaintiffs' allegations are incorrect," countered Tesoro in its statement. The 2001 incident had different causes, the company said. Cracks "had formed through a degradation mechanism entirely different from that involved in the April 2, 2010, incident."

CLICK HERE to follow the ABC News Investigative Team and Brian Ross on Facebook and join in on the discussion.

The company declined in its statement to say whether the accident was preventable, as regulators asserted, instead stressing that it "deeply regrets the immeasurable impacts" the tragedy has had on workers' families. Safety is "job number one" at Tesoro, the company added, "and we strive for continuous improvement in safety performance."

The Center for Public Integrity is a nonprofit, investigative reporting outlet in Washington, D.C.

Click Here for the Blotter Homepage.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events