April 3, 2010 in Nation/World

Violations preceded fatal refinery blast

George Tibbits Associated Press
 

Fast fact

The U.S. chemical safety board last April found 17 serious safety and health violations at the Anacortes plant.

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 motor home at the RV park across the bay.

Three men died at the scene and two women died later at a Seattle hospital. Two 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 America 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.

Inspectors found 150 instances of deficiencies and said the company didn’t ensure safe work practices and failed to update safety information when changes were 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. The settlement reduced the total penalty to $12,250 and lowered the number of violations to three.

“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.

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.”

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.

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. The company identified two others who died of their burns at the hospital: 29-year-old Kathryn Powell and 36-year-old Donna Van Dreumel.

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