In one day, we were all reminded of the danger of working at an oil refinery. It is essential that workers at such plants are able to work as safely as possible. Working in the oil and gas industry is inherently dangerous because crude oil and natural gas are volatile and must be handled with extreme care. In the space of one week, there were two important reminders of why strong safety measures are necessary in the oil and gas industry.
Texas City Refinery Explosion
On Thursday, April 19, an explosion at Valero Energy Corporation’s Texas City, Texas, refinery set off a huge fire. Thankfully, the fire was quickly contained within an hour and a half, according to the City of Texas City’s Emergency Management office. No injuries were reported, but workers at the Marathon and Valero refineries, which are adjacent to each other, were told to shelter in place while emergency personnel put out the fire. No similar order was issued to the rest of the surrounding area.
The explosion that rocked the refinery was heard more than five miles from the refinery and it also shook buildings as much as a mile from the refinery, according to local media reports. The refinery explosion struck a nerve, since Texas City was the site of the deadliest industrial explosion in U.S. history. That happened on April 16, 1947, when a ship carrying more than 2,000 tons of ammonium nitrate blew up, setting off blasts on other ships and nearby oil storage tanks and killing 581 people.
Wisconsin Refinery Explosion
Exactly one week later, a tank full of asphalt exploded at the Husky Energy oil refinery in Superior, Wisconsin, a city that sits on the Minnesota state line and on the western edge of Lake Superior. According to authorities at the scene, this explosion and resulting fire was more damaging than the one in Texas City, leaving 11 people injured, with one sustaining serious injuries. That fire sent large plumes of smoke into the air, which prompted an evacuation order for a three-mile radius surrounding the refinery, as well as a 10-mile corridor directly south of the blast, where the thick black smoke was heading. Although the refinery is located in an industrial area of Superior, there is a residential neighborhood about a mile southeast of there.
When the fire was put out, area residents were told they could return to their homes, but officials later announced they would be re-evaluating the evacuation throughout the night. Since the explosion and fire, state and federal agencies have been monitoring air quality, as a way to gauge the level of hazard.
The Importance of OSHA Enforcement
A review of the records of both refineries show a history of citations from the Occupational Safety and Health Administation (OSHA) for violations of OSHA safety standards. While the Valero plant has no chemical safety violations from OSHA over the past five years, they were cited for two serious violations related to ladder safety in 2016. Also, the plant has been penalized at least two dozen times for air permit violations by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality since 1997.
Meanwhile, the Husky Energy refinery, which is the only refinery in the state of Wisconsin, was fined by OSHA in 2015, under its previous owners, when the agency fined Calumet Superior LLC $21,000 for violations related to their emergency response plans and their handling of flammable liquids. It is also notable that the city of Superior, like Texas City, has experienced devastating industrial explosions in the past. Back in 1992, in an event that came to be known as “Toxic Tuesday,” a train that was transporting benzene gas derailed south of the city, and covering the entire region with a toxic plume, forcing the evacuation of nearly 30,000 people.
Oil and gas operations are inherently dangerous and many companies are lax on safety, especially when the price of energy climbs. This is worrisome because prices are rising and it is likely that production is about to increase again over the next several years. That, along with thousands fewer workers in the industry means many could be overworked and we could see a return of some of the lax safety conditions we saw during the last boom, which led to many accidents, as well as worker injuries and deaths.
Pipeline and refinery explosions often happen because oil and gas companies or their workers take shortcuts or somehow fail to follow safety regulations as a way to to cut costs and maximize their profits. A case can be made that such measures do save a little money, but the explosions that result wipe out most of that savings, because of the serious property damages that result, as well as the injuries, the fatalities and the serious environmental disasters. All of those can have serious effects with the potential of lasting a very long time.