May 22, 2017 Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH 1Comment

Former Mayor Gayle McLaughlin remembers the phone calls from that evening. It was August 6, 2012. Constituents were calling McLaughlin at home to describe a huge cloud of black smoke infiltrated their neighborhoods. The cloud of pollution was coming from the Chevron refinery. A corroded pipe at the Chevron refinery failed, causing a massive cloud of hydrocarbon and steam that ignited.

Next was the shelter-in-place warning. It covered the mayor’s town of Richmond, CA town and neighboring San Pablo. The warning lasted lasted five hours. Four transit line stations were closed.

Residents of Richmond, CA had been complaining for years about the toxic emissions from the 2,900 acre refinery in their backyard. This time, 15,000 sought help for respiratory problems at hospital emergency departments. Nineteen workers narrowly escaped death, but it was far from the first “close call” for employees at the refinery.  It was however, the final straw for workers and the community.

Nicole Marquez, a staff attorney for the Oakland, CA-based Worksafe said the Richmond fire served as a “rallying point” for workers and community groups to raise the profile of their health and safety concerns. Their near five-year effort resulted last week in an announcement of new safety rules for California refineries. The standards board of the state’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) announced revisions to its regulations for process safety management (PSM) of highly hazardous chemicals.

WorkSafe was part of coalition of environmental organizations and labor unions, led by the BlueGreen Alliance and the United Steelworkers. The coalition included the Sierra Club, the California AFL-CIO, the State Building and Construction Trade Council, and the environmental justice organizations Communities for a Better Environment and the Asian Pacific Environmental Network. They capitalized on the findings from investigation conducted by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, Cal/OSHA, and others to demand meaningful reforms to existing PSM standards. Investigators found, for example, that the 1970’s-era piping used in the refinery was particularly susceptible to corrosion from today’s sulfur-rich oil. Chevron’s technicians alerted company management to the vulnerability of the pipes but they were ignored. The company’s mechanical integrity program was also an utter failure. Investigators found more than 100 instances in which “temporary” clamps were holding together pipes and equipment.

The coalition was relentless in pushing an interagency taskforce to issue new safety requirements for refineries in the state. A key demand from the coalition was a meaningful role for workers in process safety decision making.

“We work with these processes every day, and we have a pretty good idea about what’s needed to make them safer,” explained Norm Rogers of United Steelworkers Local 675.

They succeeded in securing that kind of provision in the new rules, as well as requirements such as:

  • Conducting reviews to identify corrosion and mechanical wear;
  • Conducting process hazard analyses;
  • Encouraging the use of the most effective safety measures for correcting hazards when considering competing demands and costs (i.e., a hierarchy of hazard control analysis);
  • Analyzing the impact on safety of staffing levels, fatigue, shift work, etc.; and
  • Implementing procedures to ensure that plant safety remains consistent during personnel changes (i.e., management of change)

The new regulation is being applauded by safety, community, and labor groups. The chair of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board Vanessa Sutherland congratulated Cal/OSHA for issuing the new refinery safety rules. The CSB investigated the Chevron Richmond catastrophe and issued its report and recommendations in 2015.

Mike Wilson, Director of Occupational and Environmental Health at the BlueGreen Alliance, has been at the center of the effort for the new refinery safety rules.

“The bottom line is that California understands how strong public safety and health protections go hand-in-hand with a strong economy.”

When implemented, California’ new PSM regulations for refineries will be the most protective in the country. Federal OSHA’s PSM standard was adopted in 1992 and has not been updated.

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