Workplace Safety
12:57 pm
Mon August 18, 2014

No Criminal Charges In Deadly Tesoro Refinery Explosion

Lew Janz of Anacortes was one of seven Tesoro workers killed by an April 2010 explosion at a refinery in Anacortes, Washington.
Credit Courtesy of Gordon Janz

The U.S. Department of Justice has closed its four-year criminal investigation into whether environmental and worker safety laws were broken leading up to the fatal Tesoro refinery blast.

The result: No one will face criminal charges in connection with the blast, which killed seven Tesoro workers in Anacortes, Washington, in 2010.

Tesoro's Anacortes refinery in 2014.
Credit KUOW/John Ryan

A Friday afternoon press release from the Justice Department said its investigation found the evidence “does not reach the exacting bar for criminal prosecution.”

The announcement brings to a close the Obama Administration’s response to the deadliest industrial accident in Washington state in 50 years.

We believe people will continue to be killed and seriously injured in these plants.

The federal Chemical Safety Board wrapped up its investigation in April. That inquiry found Tesoro was complacent about safety, routinely putting workers in dangerous situations next to leaky, poorly maintained equipment.

“Tesoro got off easy,” said Gordon Janz of Anacortes. His brother, Lew Janz, was one of seven Tesoro employees killed by an exploding heat exchanger. It had never been inspected for the type of corrosion that led to the explosion, according to the Chemical Safety Board report.

“They simply didn't want to spend the money to do what they needed to do,” Gordon Janz said of Tesoro management. “That heat exchanger was installed the same year Lew and I moved here with our parents, back in ’72,” he said.

“The only way these things are going to change is if people in those jobs, who are in charge of those inspections and what not, are held criminally responsible for not doing their jobs,” he said.

The Justice Department press release said the department would work with the Chemical Safety Board to ensure that future investigations are completed more quickly.

On behalf of Tesoro, a crisis communication consultant released a statement saying Tesoro appreciated the government’s diligent investigation and was pleased with the decision.

Steve Garey, president of United Steel Workers Local 12-591 in Anacortes, said union members were frustrated but not surprised by the outcome.

“We believe people will continue to be killed and seriously injured in these plants, somewhere in this industry, until regulations are improved,” said Garey, a machinist at Tesoro’s Anacortes refinery.

“It's very unusual for senior executives, managers and other people like that to be held accountable under some kind of criminal statute in disasters like this,” he said.

Six months after the blast, the Washington Department of Labor and Industries hit Tesoro with a $2.39 million fine, the largest in the department’s history. The state said Tesoro had willfully broken workplace safety laws 39 times.

Tesoro appealed the penalty before the Washington Board of Industrial Insurance Appeals, and lawyers have argued over the appeal for nearly four years.

To date, Judge Mark Jaffe has knocked the Texas oil company’s fine down to $658,500.

Families of the dead reached a $39 million settlement last year with Tesoro and Shell, which owned the refinery until 1998.

“The civil system is the only real remedy for holding corporations accountable,” said Seattle attorney David Beninger, who represents families of those who died in the blast. “Tesoro has been pretty responsive with rectifying the problems they had.”

The families have an ongoing wrongful-death lawsuit against Lloyd’s Register Energy Americas, a company that advised Tesoro on how to inspect its high-temperature, high-pressure machinery.

A trial is scheduled for Oct. 28 in Skagit County Superior Court.