ExxonMobil Fire Leads To Heavy Cal/OSHA Fines, Deeper Scrutiny Of Refinery Safety

Cal/OSHA hit ExxonMobil with more than $566,000 in proposed fines stemming from the February blast at the company’s Torrance, CA, facility that injured four workers, an incident that sparked renewed national attention to refinery safety and that led the state to form a task force keyed to the complex issue.

The penalties sought by Cal/OSHA are based on 19 citations against ExxonMobil Refining & Supply Co. for alleged safety and health violations following a probe into the Feb. 18 explosion at the Torrance refinery — 18 of which were classified as serious due to a “realistic possibility of worker death or serious injury,” the agency said.

Six of the serious violations were also classified as willful because Cal/OSHA alleges that Exxon did not take action to eliminate known hazardous conditions at the refinery and intentionally failed to comply with state safety standards.

Cal/OSHA said the blast was the result of a hydrocarbon release from the refinery’s fluid catalytic cracker unit into its electrostatic precipitator, and that the hydrocarbons ignited inside the precipitator, causing the unit to explode. Eight workers were decontaminated, and four were sent to hospitals for treatment of minor injuries.

“Petroleum refineries have the responsibility to keep workers safe, and to also protect nearby communities and the environment,” Christine Baker, director of the Department of Industrial Relations, Cal/OSHA’s parent agency, in a statement Thursday (Aug. 13). “This investigation revealed severe lapses in Exxon’s safety protocols.”

It was not clear as of Monday whether ExxonMobil intended to contest the findings. “We are reviewing the citations to determine the appropriate administrative and legal next steps,” a spokesman for the company’s corporate office in Dallas told Inside OSHA Online in an email.

Among Cal/OSHA’s findings are that a 2007 safety review uncovered concerns about flammable vapor leakage in the precipitator and that management “knew of potential fire or explosion hazards as a result of the leakage, and failed to correct the danger.”

Exxon’s incident response team, which included ExxonMobil senior management, was aware of a leaking spent slide valve on the fluid catalytic cracker unit before the accident occurred, Cal/OSHA alleges, saying the unit had not been working properly for as many as nine years prior to the incident. “There was no functional pressure transmitter and as a result, ExxonMobil was unable to monitor hydrocarbon pressure buildup in the unit.”

Cal/OSHA further alleges that there was no written operating procedure for placing the unit in hot standby, which is a state between startup and shutdown that can be compared to working on an idling car.

The state agency said it issued an order prohibiting use of the unit on Feb. 18, and that order remains in effect “until ExxonMobil can demonstrate that the unit is safe to operate.”

Cal/OSHA has probed the Torrance facility twice in the last five years for accident-related incidents that resulted in serious workplace injuries in 2011. A refinery operator in March of that year was working on the fluid catalytic cracker unit, attempting to shut down a failed pump when a motor in the pump suffered mechanical failure and exploded, Cal/OSHA said, adding that the worker suffered a fractured jaw and lost six teeth. The other accident, in September 2011, did not occur in the fluid catalytic cracker unit. In those cases Cal/OSHA issued three serious and five general citations.

The state OSHA program noted that the Feb. 18 explosion, coupled with the August 2012 Chevron refinery fire in Richmond, has led to proposed improvements in petroleum refinery regulation. Proposed changes include damage mechanism reviews, employee participation, safeguard protection analysis and hazard control analysis.

“Cal/OSHA is working closely with other members of the Governor’s Interagency Refinery Task Force toward more protective refinery safety regulations,” said Cal/OSHA chief Juliann Sum. “Improved regulations and coordinated interagency inspections will reduce risks that can lead to serious accidents.”

The Governor’s Interagency Refinery Task Force, formed in the aftermath of the Chevron fire, includes participants from 13 agencies and departments — Christopher Cole (ccole@iwpnews.com)