Fueling Fears

Published — January 30, 2014 Updated — May 19, 2014 at 12:19 pm ET

Delay of long-awaited refinery accident report signals divisions at Chemical Safety Board

A night view of the Tesoro Corp.’s refinery in Anacortes, Washington. Emma Schwartz/The Center for Public Integrity


Editor’s note, Jan. 30: This story has been updated to include a summary of a draft report on the Tesoro accident by the Chemical Safety Board, and a statement by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.

In the almost four years since an explosion at the Tesoro Corp. oil refinery in Anacortes, Wash., killed seven workers, the independent federal agency investigating the accident has faced criticism from members of Congress and unions for failing to complete its final report.

That delay was scheduled to come to an end Thursday with a public meeting in Anacortes that would include a vote by the agency’s board on the final report. Instead, the chairman’s last-minute decision to change the gathering to a “listening session” and delay a vote has drawn a sharp rebuke from the congressman representing the area and exposed broader divisions between the chairman and the board’s other two members, all three of whom were Obama selections.

“We are embarrassed by the pattern of unmet promises” about the Tesoro report, the two board members wrote to Democratic Rep. Rick Larsen, saying they had not been consulted by the chairman about the most recent change of plans.

The productivity of the agency, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, has dropped substantially since 2006, a Center for Public Integrity analysis found, and the Environmental Protection Agency’s inspector general said in a report last August that the CSB’s growing backlog of unfinished investigations has hindered its ability to fulfill its mission of making recommendations to prevent catastrophes.

An agency spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment, but officials previously have said they are doing what they can in light of limited resources and constant congressional demands for investigations of serious accidents. The agency is investigating, among other things, the blowout of the Macondo well that led to the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010; the explosion of a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, last April; and the release of toxic substances into the Elk River near Charleston, W.Va., this month.

The draft report, released Thursday, sharply criticizes Tesoro’s safety culture, saying the company failed to identify and fix the damaged equipment that led to the explosion, even after repeated leaks and small fires. It also found that safety standards set by the American Petroleum Institute, the industry trade association, were inadequate and that the state regulatory agency didn’t have enough qualified experts and had failed to detect problems in inspections of the refinery.

In a statement, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said, “The draft report released today is an important step in the process of avoiding another tragedy, but I am extremely frustrated that after nearly four years, the Chemical Safety Board has still failed to produce a final report. This delay is emblematic of poor leadership at CSB, which continues to be a disservice to workers, companies, and the economy. Without dramatically improved performance, substantial leadership changes at CSB will be necessary.”

The CSB announced Thursday’s meeting on Dec. 23 but issued the changes on January 23. Rather than a meeting that includes a discussion and vote by the board, the session will feature a presentation by CSB staff members. There would be an opportunity for public comment in both cases.

The problem, Larsen wrote to the agency on Jan. 24, is that the report will not be released until the meeting, so the public won’t have time to examine it and ask informed questions. Larsen said he expected the CSB to do what it had promised in 2013: provide a draft report to the public in advance and allow discussion at the meeting.

That is what the agency did with a report released earlier this month on the 2012 fire at the Chevron refinery in Richmond, Calif.

Responding to Larsen, the board’s chairman, Rafael Moure-Eraso, wrote that the public will have adequate opportunity to weigh in, as the agency will take written comments during a 45-day period following the listening session.

It’s not clear whether the CSB will hold another meeting at the end of that period. Larsen wants the CSB to return to Anacortes and allow the public to discuss the report in person after being able to study it, a spokesman said, but the agency has not indicated it has any plans to do so.

“That’s what the community in Richmond got, and that’s what we were expecting,” the spokesman, Bryan Thomas, said.

The letter from board members Mark Griffon and Beth Rosenberg suggests that Moure-Eraso’s decision to postpone a vote on the Tesoro report was an attempt to avoid a repeat of the 2-1 defeat in a vote related to the Chevron report.

The disagreement in that vote was over a policy recommendation contained in the report that called for adoption of the “safety case” method — a significant overhaul of the regulatory system that would require companies regularly to analyze dangers and convince government officials that they were driving risk as low as possible. This model is more adaptive to changing environments and advancing technology than the current U.S. method, which relies on compliance with set standards, proponents argue. It has been implemented in the United Kingdom, Australia and Norway.

Industry representatives, experts and union officials, however, expressed concern that the method has not been shown to be effective and would be extremely difficult to implement. “[A] great deal more work needs to be done before a safety case system can be fully considered as a regulatory model for California or the United States,” the United Steelworkers wrote in comments to the CSB.

Griffon and Rosenberg voted to postpone the decision on the Chevron report for 120 days to allow further consideration of the merits of the model. In their Jan. 27 letter to Larsen, the two board members wrote, “The draft Tesoro report essentially cut and pasted the recommendations for the ‘safety case’ regime from the report on the Chevron fire.”

Former board members told the Center they believed Moure-Eraso’s decision to morph Thursday’s meeting into a listening session fit with a pattern of advocating particular policies and stifling dissent.

“Somebody is trying to push safety case, apparently at all costs,” former board member Bill Wright said. William Wark, another former board member, agreed, saying, “There’s no management of the place.”

Both Wright and Wark were nominated by George W. Bush and left the board in 2011.

Griffon’s and Rosenberg’s letter indicates growing concern by Moure-Eraso’s fellow Obama nominees. “The lack of urgency to complete this investigation is very troubling,” they wrote to Larsen. “It is simply inexcusable that multiple commitments made to you and others are not being honored.”

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