ANACORTES, Wash. — A Washington state oil refinery hit by a deadly blast and fire early Friday was recently fined for safety violations amid what federal watchdogs call a troubling trend of serious accidents at refineries.
The blast struck the Tesoro Corp. refinery in Anacortes, about 70 miles north of Seattle on Puget Sound, around 12:30 a.m. Employees were doing maintenance work on a unit that processes highly flammable liquid derived during the refining process, the company said.
The blast shook houses and woke people miles away, shooting flames as high as the refinery’s tower before the blaze was extinguished about 90 minutes later.
“We could tell this was horrific, this was huge,” said Jan Taylor of La Conner, Wash., who felt the blast rock her motorhome at the RV park across the bay.
Three men died at the scene and a woman died later at a Seattle hospital. Three others were hospitalized with major burns over the majority of their bodies. It was the largest fatal refinery accident since a 2005 explosion at a BP American refinery in Texas killed 15 people and injured another 170.
Six investigators with the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board were dispatched to the scene, and the Washington Department of Labor and Industries launched an investigation.
The agency fined the San Antonio-based company $85,700 last April for 17 serious safety and health violations, defined as those with potential to cause death or serious physical injury.
Inspectors found 150 instances of deficiencies and said the company didn’t ensure safe work practices and failed to update safety information when changes where made to equipment.
In November, the state reached a settlement with Tesoro, requiring in part that the company correct the hazards and hire a third-party consultant to do a safety audit.
“We don’t know if any of those hazards were involved in the incident that happened today,” said Hector Castro, spokesman for the state labor department.
Jeff Haffner, associate general counsel for Tesoro, said the third-party audit was completed in the past few weeks, but the consulting firm hired had not yet issued its report.
Most of the items involved requirements for managing safety, he said.
“There’s no way for us to know whether the subject matter of any of those items were related, if at all, to this incident, because we don’t know what caused the incident,” Haffner said.
The company is conducting its own investigation into the fire, he said.
The blast occurred in a unit that was in the dangerous process of returning to operation, turning up heat and pressure, said Tesoro spokesman Greg Wright.
“It’s a volatile process,” Wright said. “We are diligent about being safe.”
The state inspections were part of a national effort to examine all petroleum refineries in the United States after the 2005 explosion in Texas.
Of the 18 major accidents the U.S. chemical safety board is currently examining, at least seven are at refineries, said Daniel Horowitz, spokesman for the board. Yet there are only 150 refineries in the country and tens of thousands of other chemical plants.
“Our board is extremely concerned about safety in this sector,” Horowitz told The Associated Press. “There’s been a lot of accidents in the refining sector. There’s been a lot of safety violations.”
Company investigators were still trying to determine the exact cause of the blaze, Wright said, and the extent of the damage was unknown. Parts of the refinery continue to operate, he said, and any loss in production can likely be made up by ramping up production at Tesolo’s other West Coast refineries or buying from others.
Killed were Matthew C. Bowen, 31, of Arlington; Darrin J. Hoines, 43, of Ferndale; and Daniel J. Aldridge, 50, of Anacortes, according to the Skagit County coroner. A 29-year-old woman died of her burns at the hospital; she was identified by the company as Kathryn Powell.
Those hospitalized included a 36-year-old woman and two men, 34 and 41, said Susan Gregg-Hanson, a spokeswoman for Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.
Tesolo is an independent refiner and marketer of petroleum products. The Anacortes refinery, which Tesoro has owned since 1998, can refine about 130,000 barrels of crude daily, according to the company. It mainly processes Alaska North Slope crude and makes gasoline, diesel and jet fuel, mostly for Washington and Oregon.
There are four large refineries in northwestern Washington. This is the first refinery fire in Anacortes since 2007, when a blaze damaged a storage tank at the Shell Puget Sound Refinery and three people received minor injuries. Tesoro had a previous fire in 2002, with no injuries.
Six refinery workers were killed in an explosion and fire at the Equilon Puget Sound Refinery in Anacortes in 1998.