Recent headlines about the fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas, that killed 15 people and injured 200 was a tragic reminder of what could have happened to Richmond and other East Bay communities during last August's Chevron refinery fire.
While the East Bay avoided deaths, the refinery fire was not without consequence: workers narrowly escaped serious injury, and 15,000 residents sought medical treatment. So what more can be done to prevent these types of incidents? One answer can be found in a report by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board. After investigating last year's refinery fire, this federal agency recommended Chevron improve its safety culture and for state and local agencies to increase regulatory oversight.
The Chemical Safety Board noted that Cal/OSHA, the state agency responsible for enforcing occupational and public safety laws, is tasked with a monumental job. The board highlighted that the Cal/OSHA unit responsible for overseeing California's 15 oil refineries and more than 1,600 chemical processing facilities, is not adequately staffed to maximize prevention of fires, explosions or toxic releases.
With this year's state budget, California has the opportunity to prioritize refinery and other facility safety. Budget subcommittees in both legislative houses adopted proposals to increase Cal/OSHA's staffing levels.
California has historically been a leader in facility safety. In 1999, after the Tosco Martinez refinery explosion killed four workers, California established the first Process Safety Management Unit to oversee hazardous industries. Over the last 10 years, this unit of seven inspectors has conducted more than 300 refinery inspections and issued 277 citations and penalties totaling $749,000.
These efforts are significant, yet more must be done. The Chemical Safety Board estimates that current staffing levels prevent Cal/OSHA's Process Safety Management Unit from meeting the federal recommendation for comprehensive refinery inspections of 1,000 hours each. At a recent legislative hearing in Richmond, Don Holmstrom of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board noted that inspections after accidents occur are a "form of emergency response."
Media reports rightly zeroed in on the brevity of planned inspections at the Richmond Chevron Refinery. From 2006 to 2010, Cal/OSHA's PSM unit conducted three planned inspections totaling 150 hours.
During those same years, PSM unit inspectors investigated 11 complaints and five accident reports requiring additional staff time. Since the fire, the PSM unit has spent at least 4,000 hours investigating the incident. The agency's resources will be hindered further as Chevron appeals Cal/OSHA's citations.
California would be wise to take a page from the United Kingdom. Despite having fewer refineries than California, the United Kingdom has 100 inspectors to regulate 13 refineries.
As far back as 2007, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board identified an important way to improve refinery safety nationwide: Employ more technically competent regulators, and conduct more comprehensive inspections.
With only seven inspectors in the PSM, Cal/OSHA has not been able to make progress on these objectives.
This year, California has the opportunity to support a proposal that allows Cal/OSHA to add 15 new inspectors to this inspection unit. A modest fee on producers would support the positions.
Critics might say this proposal won't prevent the next catastrophic accident; we can't say for sure. Ultimately, employers are responsible for safe workplaces, but perhaps if state regulatory agencies are able to devote more resources to planned inspections, we can transform an industrywide culture of reaction into one of prevention.
Nancy Skinner represents parts of Contra Costa and Alameda counties in the California Assembly. She is a member of the Budget Conference Committee.