Feds Urge Tighter Refinery Regulations After Fatal Tesoro Blast

May 2, 2014

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board is calling for 60 improvements in the design, operation and regulation of the Tesoro oil refinery in Anacortes and of refineries nationwide.

Four years after an explosion and fireball engulfed and killed seven workers, the federal agency finished its long-delayed inquiry into the blast at a sparsely attended meeting at Anacortes High School on Thursday night.

The explosion was the worst industrial accident Washington state has seen in the past 50 years.

Just after midnight on April 2, 2010, a fireball half the size of a football field erupted when workers were attempting to restart a high-temperature device called a heat exchanger.

The blast lit up the night sky and sent a plume of black smoke heading toward Anacortes. Residents flooded the Skagit County 911 center with phone calls.

"What was the explosion that just happened at 12:31 and shook the whole building?" one woman called in from her downtown Anacortes apartment.

"It was near the refineries. I don't have any other information," the operator responded.

"Oh my god, I hear the sirens going. I'm going to pray for them," the woman replied.

'Disgust and exasperation'

Four years after that explosion rocked the town of Anacortes, federal investigators concluded the blast reflects hazardous practices throughout the oil-refining industry, from operating at unsafe temperatures and pressures to making repairs on hazardous equipment while it is still operating.

"Tesoro and the whole industry needs to stop this dangerous practice," said Beth Rosenberg, one of three members of the safety board. Two of the board's five seats are vacant, their nominees awaiting confirmation by the U.S. Senate.

The Chemical Safety Board report said a significant accident happens at an oil refinery somewhere in the United States about once every three days.

Modeled after the National Transportation Safety Board, the federal agency investigates accidents but has no regulatory authority. It made detailed recommendations for Tesoro, the American Petroleum Institute, the Washington state legislature and other entities to act on. 

"The board and the investigators are absolutely unified in our commitment to worker health and our disgust and exasperation with the status quo," Rosenberg said.

The Tesoro refinery on the outskirts of Anacortes
The Tesoro refinery on the outskirts of Anacortes
Credit KUOW Photo/John Ryan

For the Tesoro blast, the safety board blamed lax regulations, faulty industry standards and low-quality steel in the equipment that failed.

The board called for the use of "inherently safer technologies," including steel that is less prone to the hydrogen corrosion that left cracks in the ill-fated heat exchanger.

Internal inspections and a state audit both failed to point out the severe corrosion in the machinery that later exploded.

United Steel Workers members questioned the value of a report coming out more than four years after the accident, calling the delay "disrespectful."

Union member and Tesoro-Anacortes maintenance worker Ryan Anderson said the report put too much emphasis on new technology and not enough on the industry's habit of running old equipment into the ground.

"The reality we live in is equipment that is 50 to 60 years old," he said.

"Without inspection, this old equipment will fail."

He described a 4-foot-long crack in the shell of the heat exchanger that ruptured.

"Had somebody crawled inside that shell, they would've seen it with a flashlight," he said. 

David Miller with the American Petroleum Institute said the safety board's call for refineries to operate at lower temperatures and pressures was based on erroneous modeling.

Tesoro spokeswoman Kim Sampson declined to be interviewed. The company released a statement saying it disagreed with much of the report, especially the depiction of Tesoro being complacent about safety.

"We will take steps to address Tesoro-specific recommendations in light of the many actions we have taken and continue to take as part of our commitment to process safety performance."

Tesoro released a nearly identical statement when the safety board released its draft report in January.

The San Antonio-based company purchased its Anacortes plant from Shell Oil in 1998; the two companies agreed last fall to pay the blast victims' families $39 million. Those families continue to pursue a wrongful-death lawsuit against Lloyd's Register, the British company that provided inspection services for the refinery before the corroded equipment exploded. 

Tesoro is appealing the $2.4 million fine the Washington Department of Labor and Industries assessed in 2010 following the blast.

Tesoro's Anacortes refinery turns up to 120,000 barrels of oil a day into gasoline, diesel and jet fuel. It employs about 400 people.