Washington, DC — America’s industrial infrastructure is substantially more susceptible to catastrophic failure than those in other industrialized countries, according to reports posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). In certain key sectors, such as petrochemicals, aging U.S. refineries are become more dangerous with each passing month.
The combined losses from the fires, explosions and spills regularly plaguing U.S. chemical plants takes a proportionately greater toll than in the rest of the world. For example, the reinsurance giant, Swiss Re, concludes that the sum of all reinsurance losses (the “loss burden”) in refining, petrochemical processing and gas processing industry in the U.S. is approximately three times that of the comparably sized sector in the European Union (EU), with the rest of the world similar to the EU cluster.
Beyond economic losses, the toll on American workers is also higher. A study entitled “Occupational Fatality Risks in the United States and the United Kingdom” published earlier this year in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine found the fatality rate of U.S. workers approximately three times that of workers in the U.K. American worker deaths from chemical exposure were more than 10 times higher than their U.K. counterparts; death by fire nearly 5 times and by explosion nearly 4 times as likely.
Rather than improving, some key U.S. industrial sectors are declining. For example, a recent review of refinery safety in California concluded:
“With some exceptions, other countries that refine oil have experienced a decline in major refinery incidents over the last decade, whereas the U.S. appears to be following the opposite trajectory.”
“America is on a trajectory toward Third World industrial safety,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. “Just as our bridges, highways and other public infrastructure require reinvestment so do our industrial plants if we are to avoid the damage and dysfunction driven by a crumbling core.”
Perhaps the paradigm case is Chevron’s refinery in Richmond, California. In August 2012, a steel pipeline sprung a leak which gasified into a plume and then ignited, creating a chemical cloud that forced 15,000 residents to seek medical care. The leak was caused by sulfidation corrosion from the sulfur in petroleum. There was a similar leak at the same refinery just a week prior; Chevron had four such leaks in its other refineries that year. Moreover, nearly 95% of the 144 U.S refineries were built before 1985 and have similarly vulnerable steel piping. The same year as the Richmond accident, there were 45 other corrosive leaks. This becomes even more concerning as the sulfur content in U.S. oil sent to refineries rises.
Yet, no new safeguards have been adopted. A recommendation by the Chair of the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board calling for a preventive rather than reactive approach to chemical plants, requiring inherently safer design similar to the approaches taken in U.K., Australia and Norway, has been stymied by opposition. Indeed, every one of the very few major industrial safety proposals coming out of the Obama administration has been stillborn.
“By standing pat on industrial safety, the U.S. is actually falling further behind,” Ruch added. “Without regulation requiring safer systems, plant operators do not have a sufficient economic incentive to invest because the real costs are borne by sacrificial workers and sickened communities.”