MARTINEZ -- The number of refinery discharges in Contra Costa County rose slightly in 2010, but the overall trend in the past decade continues downward in a county with one of the nation's most stringent industrial safety ordinances.
Four relatively minor incidents occurred at Tesoro and ConocoPhillips in October and November, but the county has had no serious incidents involving fatalities or major damage to either the refineries or the communities since 2000, a marked change from the previous decade that county leaders attribute to strengthened oversight.
"This is one of those ordinances that has been very successful in bringing about meaningful change," said Supervisor John Gioia, who was elected in 1998. "I remember 10 years ago, after (the ordinance) was reauthorized after a lawsuit, it was the courage and the political will of the board at the time, and subsequent board that strengthened it over the years, because as folks will remember, there was a lot of uncertainty when it first passed."
The findings were presented Tuesday during the county's annual review of the ordinance, which requires audits, public participation, unannounced inspections, detailed safety plans from each company and extensive post-incident analyses for a broad range of refinery accidents.
The rules cover seven oil and chemical production facilities in unincorporated Contra Costa County, including Shell and Tesoro in Martinez and General Chemical in Bay Point. The county also administers a nearly identical ordinance in Richmond, where Chevron operates a large oil refinery.
The Contra Costa Health Services Hazardous Materials Program puts accidents and discharges into four severity categories; level four is the most serious, involving deaths and major damages.
Level one incidents in 2010 ranged from partial power outage, smoky plume and flaring at Tesoro Golden Eagle Refinery in Martinez to flaring at ConocoPhillips in Rodeo.
A series of toxic releases and deadly explosions racked Contra Costa in the 1990s, culminating in the death of four workers at Tosco near Martinez.
Initially viewed as a vast government overreach and the subject of considerable controversy, the industrial safety ordinance has gained widespread acceptance since its passage in 1999.
Its safety requirements have been featured in the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board's video presentation, "Anatomy of a Disaster: Explosion at BP Texas City Refinery." County staff members also testified in June before the U.S. Senate on worker safety at oil and gas refineries following accidents in Washington state and the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.
"I can't help but see how the tone has changed," said Supervisor Gayle Uilkema, who has served on the board since 1997. "At the time, it was extremely hostile, to say the least, and I see how far we've come."