California Hiring Refinery Inspectors Without Hands-On Experience

California Hiring Refinery Inspectors Without Hands-On Experience

The Chronicle is reporting that despite the brouhaha after the 2012 fire at Chevron’s Richmond plant, when 15,000 people experienced breathing problems and wound up at hospitals, the millions of dollars spent to ensure better safety have been used by state regulators to hire inspectors with little or no experience in the field.

After the 2012 debacle, the California legislature hit oil refineries with higher fees to pay for more oversight; the state had been criticized for a lack of enough comprehensive inspections of refineries, and that one result had been corroded pipes. A corroded pipe leak triggered the fire.

After heading the investigation of the Chevron fire, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board later criticized California’s state government for its inspection efforts, because another accident occurred in February at the Tesoro Corp. refinery near Martinez, when an acid spill burned two workers.

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board said after the Chevron fire that the state should hire more “experienced, competent” refinery inspectors. In 2012, when the Richmond accident occurred, there were only seven inspectors, some of whom did not have the requisite engineering know-how to challenge the oil refineries. To placate the Board, the California legislature approved $5.4 million in annual fees on oil refineries and said at least 15 inspectors would be hired.

But state officials admit none of the new inspectors have any refinery safety experience. Christine Baker, head of the Department of Industrial Relations, said, “We have some young new people — I am confident they will all be up to speed to where we intend to take this program. They are all very qualified people, or they would not even be considered to meet the civil service standards of this position.”

State Sen. Loni Hancock, who wrote the bill to obtain the funds for new inspectors, said she is not getting satisfactory answers, asserting, “I am trying to get enough highly qualified inspectors on board so we don’t have a Tesoro a year after we have a Chevron… we have not gotten those answers yet.”

Mike Wilson, chief scientist for Cal/OSHA, said the new inspectors and those who have been transferred will undergo training before they start at the refineries.

But Don Holmstrom, head of the federal agency’s western region investigations office, countered, “They need more experienced people. Not all of the people need to be experienced people, but you could have half of them with 10 or more years in a refinery or a chemical plant.”

Only about one-quarter of the 19 inspectors expected to work will have the requirements Holmstrom recommends, according to the Department of Industrial Relations, and those people were already with Cal/OSHA when the Chevron fire occurred.

Holmstrom added, “It doesn’t sound necessarily like they are hiring the same kind of people we would hire… (even the veterans) don’t have technical experience needed to challenge the companies. Without it, that’s not going to happen.”

Hancock said legislators were intent on having “enough highly qualified inspectors to go into these very dangerous and complex places — people who are skilled engineers in this area — and make sure safety regulations are being met.” She continued that only if there were inspectors with experience and knowledge could they challenge every finding, no matter how small, and string it out.

But Baker insisted the inspectors who had already worked on the job have “over 60 years of combined hands-on experience in refinery work, which has contributed enormously to the effectiveness of our oversight,” noting that it was true that “staffing is critical” but hiring more staff was “insufficient to improve refinery safety at the pace and scale that I believe is needed. Like most public health and safety problems, enforcement efforts are most effective when they are part of a comprehensive prevention effort.” She said she wants the new team to “be provided with modernized regulations” that would force refineries to prove they were fixing their problems.

Great Britain devotes four inspectors to each of its refineries, said Holstrom.