Fueling Fears

Published — September 19, 2011 Updated — May 19, 2014 at 12:19 pm ET

Safety risks underscored by violations at ExxonMobil refinery

An ExxonMobil refinery in Bayton, Texas. AP file photo

Though violations were serious, fixes need not be immediate


As an investigation by the Center for Public Integrity’s iWatch News has shown, oil refining is one of the country’s most dangerous industries, where even seemingly small recurring events such as equipment breakdowns and fires can have fatal consequences.

Yet an easily manipulated regulatory system allows companies to delay or avoid improvements. While the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration occasionally appears to take a tough stance, identifying perils and proposing fines, the fines are often small and can be appealed for long periods of time, delaying fixes.

OSHA this week made public its findings at ExxonMobil’s Baton Rouge refinery: Nearly two dozen safety violations, most of which the agency says presented a “substantial probability” of death or serious harm. The company failed to adequately inspect equipment, analyze potential dangers and investigate past incidents – violations that could have resulted in a fire or explosion, according to OSHA.

ExxonMobil has 15 days to respond to the OSHA citations, although a response does not necessarily mean the problems will be fixed immediately. The company also can contest the citations and accompanying penalties before the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission, a process that could take years. “We hope that OSHA will reconsider its findings and withdraw a number of the citations,” Exxon spokeswoman Rachael L. Moore told iWatch News.

ExxonMobil could receive a fine of $126,000 for the violations at its Baton Rouge facility, which employs 2,100 people. The sum is barely a blip on the balance sheet for the oil giant, which posted a second-quarter profit of $10.68 billion.

Moore stressed the company’s commitment to safety and said it would work closely with OSHA to meet performance standards. Exxon “is committed to ensuring that our facility operates safely at all times,” she said, “and nothing is more important than the safety and health of our employees, our contractors and the people who live and work around our operations.”

Read more in the Center’s investigative series, “Fueling Fears.”

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