Judge rejects fine for Texas oil company in deadly Anacortes blast | KUOW News and Information

Judge rejects fine for Texas oil company in deadly Anacortes blast

Jun 9, 2017

The largest workplace-safety fine in Washington history has been overturned.

A state appeals judge on Friday rejected a $2.4 million fine that oil company Tesoro faced after an explosion that killed seven workers in Anacortes.

The 2010 blast rattled houses miles away and lit up the night sky over the coastal town. It was Washington's worst industrial accident in half a century.

The Department of Labor and Industries accused Tesoro of 39 willful violations of state safety laws, and state officials slapped the Texas oil company with the record fine.

But after a six-year-long appeal by Tesoro, Judge Mark Jaffe of the Washington Board of Industrial Insurance Appeals overturned it Thursday.

Jaffe ruled the state failed to show that Tesoro was at fault for the deadly explosion. His decision criticized the state's case and its witnesses.

"There were a few who obviously blamed the incident on Tesoro but they were unable to really articulate what Tesoro did or did not do to cause the explosion," Jaffe wrote.

Tesoro attorneys have said the company acted in good faith to protect worker safety and to operate within the known safe zone of pressures and temperatures to avoid the type of corrosion that led to the explosion.

Jaffe had already knocked $1.9 million off the $2.4 million fine in preliminary decisions.

Read the full opinion here

A federal agency called the U.S. Chemical Safety Board determined in 2014 that a type of corrosion known as high-temperature hydrogen attack led to the deadly explosion. 

The state said Tesoro failed to keep silo-sized devices known as heat exchangers operating within the safe zone.

The 38-year-old heat exchanger that ruptured into a fireball half the size of a football field had never been inspected for high-temperature heat attack.

The Chemical Safety Board faulted industry standards, weak regulations and Tesoro's "complacent" attitude toward safety.

"The board and the investigators are absolutely unified in our commitment to worker health and our disgust and exasperation with the status quo," safety board member Beth Rosenberg said at a public meeting at Anacortes High School in 2014.

President Trump's proposed budget would eliminate the Chemical Safety Board.

"We feel for the families of the people who died in this preventable disaster, and will request the full Board of Industrial Insurance Appeals review of the proposed decision," the Department of Labor and Industries said in a statement.

In its own statement, Tesoro called the disaster "a tragedy that no Tesoro employee will ever forget." But it said "our programs are based on industry best practices as the judge’s proposed decision and order acknowledges."

The Anacortes refinery turns up to 120,000 barrels of oil a day into gasoline, diesel and jet fuel.

The state has 20 days to appeal Jaffe's decision to the full, three-member Board of Industrial Insurance Appeals. That board's decision can be appealed to Skagit County Superior Court.

"Tesoro got off easy," victim Lew Janz's brother Gordon Janz told KUOW in 2014 after the Department of Justice dropped its criminal investigation of the blast. Its investigation found the evidence "does not reach the exacting bar for criminal prosecution," according to a DOJ press release.

For now, seven years after the blast, no one has been held publicly accountable for the deaths of Daniel Aldridge, Matt Bowen, Matt Gumbel, Darrin Hoines, Lew Janz, Kathryn Powell and Donna Van Dreumel.

Read the full opinion:

John Ryan loves getting tips and documents. He can be reached at jryan@kuow.org or on the encrypted Signal or WhatsApp apps at 1-401-405-1206 (whistleblowers, never do so from a work or government device, account or location). For greatest security, use KUOW's SecureDrop portal. Snail mail is also a safe way to reach him confidentially: KUOW, 4518 University Way NE #310, Seattle, WA 98105. Don't put your return address on the outside.