Washington, DC — Republican lawmakers are using phony whistleblower claims to serve a corporate agenda of blocking critical steps to prevent future chemical plant explosions, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Nearly two years after a massive oil refinery fire sickened 15,000 California residents, the official federal safety report urging adoption of inherently safer technologies still languishes due to both internal and external opposition.
The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) is an independent federal agency charged with investigating industrial chemical accidents in fixed facilities. It does not issue fines or citations, but makes recommendations to plants, regulatory agencies, industry organizations and labor. In a House hearing last week, Government Reform & Oversight Committee Chair Darrell Issa released an 84-page staff report making no mention of a critical February 10, 2014 memo from CSB investigative staff defending their Chair Rafael Moure-Eraso and decrying delay of their report on the Chevron refinery.
In August 2012, Chevron’s refinery in Richmond, California sprung a leak in a steel pipeline which gasified into a plume and then ignited, eventually creating a chemical cloud that forced 15,000 residents in the San Francisco Bay Area to seek medical care. The leak in the steel piping was caused by sulfidation corrosion, in which the sulfur in the petroleum eats away at the steel. There had been a similar leak at the Chevron refinery just the week prior. Chevron had four such leaks in its other refineries that year.
After reviewing the Chevron Richmond disaster, CSB issued a draft staff report calling for a preventive rather than reactive approach to chemical plant disasters. The draft report urged adoption of inherently safer design and also urged putting the onus on facility operators to choose materials and technologies that prevent foreseeable flaws. This approach is used in the U.K., Australia and Norway but not in the U.S.
Yet when the CSB convened this January, two members of the board opposed the Chair’s attempt to adopt the draft report urging inherently safer design. As a result, the Chevron report remains in limbo.
“The Issa report avoids the key safety issue embroiling the Chemical Safety Board and instead focuses on trivial non-issues,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that none of the stale whistleblower claims cited have been upheld or claimed specific acts of wrongdoing; instead the report relied on vague charges of “micromanaging” and “toxic environment.” “No one can challenge that Darrel Issa is a master of toxic environments but his report is a mishmash of steaming innuendo and obfuscation.”
Nearly 95% of the 144 refineries in the U.S were built before 1985 and have similarly vulnerable steel piping. The same year as the Chevron Richmond accident, there were 45 other corrosive leaks. This becomes more concerning as the sulfur content in U.S. oil sent to refineries continues to rise.
“It seems that the current U.S. policy is to simply wait for chemical plant fires and explosions to occur,” added Ruch, noting that PEER has requested all relevant correspondence on the Chevron report from CSB back in February but the agency has yet to produce any documents. PEER is preparing to sue to force production. “With no effective prevention plan, local and state authorities must play public safety ‘whack-a-mole’ to tamp down new dangers before the next industrial emergency erupts.”
As more recent chemical plant failures from West, Texas to West Virginia have highlighted, the consequences of explosions and spills can be catastrophic. The public safety risks grow daily as many of the 13,000 chemical facilities in the U.S. are decades old and operate with corroding equipment.
“Many of these aging chemical plants are accidents just waiting to happen,” Ruch concluded. “The House hearing illustrates how corporate pushback cloaks itself in mock outrage about whistleblowers.”