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US Safety Board Recommends New Approach To Refinery Regulation

The Tesoro Refinery is located near Concord, California. Graphic credit: Google Maps
The Tesoro Refinery is located near Concord, California. Graphic credit: Google Maps
by Bay City News

A federal safety board, in a report on last year's Chevron refinery fire in Richmond, has urged California to adopt a new, proactive approach to regulating refineries in the state.

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board said in a draft report that its investigators believe the Aug. 6, 2012, explosion and blaze might have been prevented by the proposed approach, known as the "safety case" system. Board Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso said, "In the case of the Chevron refinery fire, the reactive system of regulation simply did not work to prevent what was ultimately a preventable accident." The explosion at the refinery's crude unit was caused by a leak in a corroded oil distillation pipe. The resulting fire created a huge plume of polluted black smoke that sent more than 15,000 people to local hospitals for treatment of respiratory problems and other illnesses.

The draft report was announced by the board at a news conference in Emeryville today. It is available for public comment through Jan. 3 and can be viewed at www.csb.gov. On Jan. 15, the board will hold a public meeting at Richmond City Hall for formal adoption of the report. "We have a refinery safety problem in the U.S. The CSB report calls for sweeping changes in way refineries are regulated in California," Moure-Eraso said. The "safety case" system originated in Europe and is now in effect in countries including the United Kingdom, Norway and Australia as well as at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and NASA, the board chairman said. Under this system, the operators of a chemical industry facility are required to make a case before designated regulators that their safety program controls hazards in a way that reduces risks to the lowest level that is reasonably practical.

By contrast, the report said, California now has a patchwork of largely reactive and activity-based regulations that set penalties for accidents and require certain specific activities, but don't focus on a general goal of driving down risk to the lowest possible level. The proposed plan would shift the responsibility for continuous reductions in major accident risks from regulators to the company, the board said. The draft report said that at the Richmond refinery, Chevron technical staff had recommended upgrading piping materials to prevent sulfidation corrosion, but that measure was not implemented by the company and was not required under state regulations then in effect. "There simply wasn't an adequate regulatory driver to get Chevron to make those decisions," safety board team leader Dan Tillema said at the news conference. Adoption of the proposed safety-case system would require a law by the state Legislature. Moure-Eraso said, "I believe California could serve as a model to the nation in adopting this system."

Assemblymember Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, said in response to the report, "California has made progress, but as today's CSB report points out we need to do better to ensure a culture of safety." Skinner noted that the state's budget this year including funding for 15 new inspectors at the Division of Occupational Safety and Health, known as Cal/OSHA. That step was advocated by Skinner and state Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Oakland. "Now, we must move to focus on prevention where safe operations and procedures are the norm and our efforts aren't spent reacting to dangerous incidents after they occur," Skinner said. Chevron USA Inc. said in a statement that it would continue to work with the safety board, the city of Richmond, Contra Costa County and regulatory agencies groups "to implement appropriate measures that enhance safety at our Richmond facility."

"While we await the release of the board's final report, we are already taking a series of actions in response to the August 2012 incident," the company said. The safety board, established by Congress in an amendment to the Clean Air Act in 1990 to investigate serious chemical accidents, began operations in 1998. Its members are appointed by the president. The board is similar to the National Transportation Safety Board in that it does not assign blame or set penalties for an accident, but rather seeks to identify the cause and recommend actions to avoid similar accidents in the future. The draft report on regulatory matters is one of three to be issued by the CSB in connection with the Richmond explosion. An earlier report released in February found that the cause of the explosion was corrosion of the pipe resulting from a reaction between sulfur compounds and iron at high temperatures. The third report will concern the emergency response to the accident, according to CSB spokeswoman Hillary Cohen.

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