Refineries in California and across the country are breaking down with unusual frequency this year, boosting prices at the pump and endangering workers and communities.
The rash of oil plant problems may not be a coincidence. The breakdowns stem from the hard use of aging equipment, a shortage of trained workers, corporate cost cutting and ownership changes, refinery experts say.
In the first six weeks of 2007, there were 43 incidents involving pipeline leaks, chemical releases, plant breakdowns and fires, more than has been typical, Kim Nibarger, a safety expert for the United Steelworkers Union, told Congress during a Thursday hearing on refinery safety.
Several of the accidents -- including two in California -- left employees injured. The California incidents, coupled with an abnormal number of maintenance projects and mishaps, recently pushed the average per-gallon cost of gasoline past $3 for the first time in six months.
"Refineries are potentially dangerous places, but they can be managed in a more safe manner," said Dave Campbell, secretary-treasurer of the steelworkers local that represents refinery workers in Southern California. Campbell said tighter regulation and greater government scrutiny made California refineries safer than others, but he added that those safeguards could be undermined by budget cutting, production demands and other pressures.
"The trend has been to decrease staff," Campbell said. "Some of our operating units are understaffed. I've had people complain about the overtime."
Such comments indicate that California plants may share some of the same stresses that were at play two years ago, when an explosion and fire at a BP refinery in Texas killed 15 and injured 180. That incident was the nation's worst workplace accident since 1990, triggering regulatory and criminal investigations as well as Thursday's hearing before the House Education and Labor Committee.
This week the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, an independent federal agency, released its report on the March 23, 2005, tragedy in Texas City, concluding that "organizational and safety deficiencies at all levels of BP caused this terrible accident," according to board Chairwoman Carolyn Merritt. The oil giant cut training, maintenance and staffing budgets, ignored safety recommendations stemming from other fatal accidents, failed to invest in refinery improvements and allowed unsafe practices to persist, the report said.
The board also criticized the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's inspection record at the BP plant and elsewhere.
BP has taken responsibility for the accident but has disputed some of the board's findings, particularly the notion that funding cuts played a role in the incident. BP said it was making widespread changes and was "committed to preventing such a tragedy from occurring again."
Eva Rowe, whose parents died in the refinery accident, told lawmakers Thursday that "I personally believe that BP, with its corporate culture of greed over profits, murdered my parents." She urged lawmakers to increase federal safety inspections and to "change the laws of our land so that no other family will have to feel the pain and sadness I felt."
Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez), the committee chairman, told reporters after the hearing that he would write legislation to improve refinery worker safety.
"I think the situation screams out for legislation," Miller said. "Clearly the status quo is lethal to American workers, and that's unacceptable."
BP, based in London, operates five U.S. refineries, including a large fuel-making operation in Carson. Affixed to one of the plant's units is a giant American flag that is visible from the 405 freeway. BP also operates Arco stations on the West Coast.
A independent-panel report commissioned by BP that was released in January concluded that "BP's Carson refinery appears to have a generally positive, trusting and open environment with effective lines of communication between management and the workforce," retired Admiral Frank Bowman, a member of the study group, testified Thursday. He added, however, that the panel found "apparent complacency toward serious process safety risks at each refinery."
BP's Carson plant was the site of a small fire last week that was quickly contained without injury. The incident nonetheless triggered a jump in the Los Angeles wholesale price of regular gasoline, reflecting market worries about supplies.
An unusually active maintenance schedule at many of California's 14 fuel-making plants over the last few months left the state vulnerable to outages and the resulting price surge. Mishaps further strained fuel production and left inventories low, said Claudia Chandler, the California Energy Commission's assistant executive director.