Managers of Tesoro's refinery near Martinez must start demonstrating that they put safety before profits or regulators should start considering steps to shut it down.

Monday's acid spill was the second in less than a month, each involving the same unit and same chemical, and each sending two workers to the hospital. After the first incident, Tesoro stonewalled, blocking U.S. Chemical Safety Board investigators from accessing the refinery.

During the legal standoff, the company altered the accident site rather than preserving the evidence. When investigators finally gained some cooperation, they found out that the release was not the minor incident Tesoro had portrayed but rather involved an estimated 84,000 pounds of sulfuric acid.

The Golden Eagle refinery owned by Tesoro just east of Martinez (Staff archives)
The Golden Eagle refinery owned by Tesoro just east of Martinez (Staff archives)

Time after time, public figures, be it politicians or major companies, compound their errors by covering up rather than coming clean and working to resolve systemic problems. The more Tesoro digs in, the more the community rightly questions its safety culture.

The plant, under different ownership, was the site of a 1999 accident that killed four workers. Under Tesoro ownership in just one year, 2012, significant incidents included two fires, a sulfuric acid release, a vapor release and an unspecified leak, according to the safety board.

Meanwhile, at Tesoro's Anacortes, Wash., refinery, a 2010 fatal explosion and fire resulted from what the safety board called a "complacent" attitude toward flammable leaks and occasional fires. The board found Tesoro had failed to correct a history of hazardous conditions.


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This community must not stand for that here.

Sure, a shutdown would hurt not only the local job market but also increase gas prices, albeit only a small amount, probably no more than a dime a gallon. But a major incident would have its own serious economic consequences.

Moreover, the money pales in comparison to the threat to worker safety, the environment and the health of surrounding residents and employees posed by a company that seems to recklessly dismiss safety.

Most in the industry recognize a "trust us" approach no longer cuts it. Chevron understood that after the 2012 explosion at its Richmond refinery that nearly killed 19 workers, spewed tons of pollutant-laced black smoke into the air for hours, sent 15,000 surrounding residents seeking medical attention and hospitalized about 20.

The public needs outside oversight to protect it. That's why the Chemical Safety Board has clear authority to investigate such accidents and find ways to ensure they don't happen again.

That's why Tesoro's stonewalling is so appalling. The company has yet to fully cooperate with the federal agency's investigation of the last release. If it doesn't immediately change its attitude, tougher action is needed.