October 4, 2010 in Region

State issues record fine in Anacortes refinery blast

Department of Labor and Industries says explosion could have been prevented
Susan Gilmore Seattle Times

The Washington Department of Labor and Industries on Monday fined Tesoro Corp. a record $2.39 million for a deadly explosion in April at the oil refinery in Anacortes.

“That was a sad and terrible day in our state,” said Judy Schurke, agency director, at a morning briefing where the results of the investigation into the April 2 explosion were released. “Seven lives were lost. This incident, these deaths, were preventable.”

She said officials with Labor and Industries met before today’s briefing with the families of those who died.

“When the disaster happened, I said Labor and Industries would take a hard look at the circumstances to see if any workplace rules were violated,” Schurke said. “We found numerous violations.”

The state said Tesoro failed to check for cracks in the 40-year-old equipment involved in an explosion that killed the seven workers. The agency also said Tesoro disregarded workplace safety rules, postponed maintenance and failed to adequately protect its workers.

The agency cited the company for 44 violations of state workplace safety and health regulations.

“Tesoro did not inspect the aging equipment in accordance with its own policies and good engineering practices,” said Michael Silverstein, assistant director of the state Department of Labor and Industries Division of Occupational Safety and Health. “There were cracks in the metal that could have been discovered by proper testing that was not done in 10 years.”

He also said there was a long history of significant leaks that were not inspected, inadequate training and inadequate equipment.

He said L&I planned to meet again this afternoon with Tesoro to talk about the explosion and the agency’s finding.

The refinery, about 70 miles north of Seattle, is restarting operations Wednesday and expects to be at full capacity by Oct. 15. The refinery was built by Shell in 1955 and purchased by Tesoro in 1998.

A team from the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board has also investigated the accident.

The explosion was the deadliest event at a U.S. refinery since 15 people died at a BP facility in Texas in 2005.

The explosion at the Tesoro plant in Anacortes was so violent that many in the community felt it.

Tesoro is the third-largest of five state refineries. Parent company Tesoro Corp., based in San Antonio, operates seven refineries nationwide. Last year, Tesoro reported a loss of $140 million on revenue of $16.8 billion.

The Tesoro refinery was cited in April 2009 (and initially fined $85,700) for 17 “serious” safety violations that posed a risk of death or serious injury to workers, according to the Washington Department of Labor and Industries.

In all, that inspection found 150 safety deficiencies, mostly failures to keep accurate safety records and information on possible hazards to workers.

After the company appealed its $85,700 fine, L&I agreed to dismiss all but three of the 17 serious violations and reduced the fine to $12,250.

The explosion and fire occurred in a bank of boilers that had been cleaned and had undergone routine maintenance and were being started up, said Silverstein. The blast occurred in the naphtha unit of the refinery. Naphtha is a volatile, flammable liquid derived during the refining process.

Experts say the startup process in the unit, called a hydrotreater, is especially dangerous because the liquid is being heated to high temperatures at great pressure.

Federal investigators say all seven victims were within 50 feet of the unit and had no chance of escaping.

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