About 200 workers at the Tesoro refinery in Anacortes, Washington, are on strike. They've had a 24-hour picket line at the plant's main gate for more than a week.
Steelworkers at 11 oil refineries, which produce more than a tenth of the nation's gasoline, are striking.
Like many labor disputes, this one includes a push for higher wages, but the United Steel Workers say they're more concerned about their safety on the job.
"Anybody'll tell you, we make a decent living," said Tesoro-Anacortes steelworker Ryan Anderson. "What's important to us is establishing safe staffing at these plants, getting our manpower up to a level that we can feel safe, that our communities feel safe."
Anacortes suffered Washington's worst industrial accident of the past half-century in April 2010 when a fireball erupted at the Tesoro plant. Seven workers died; the explosion rocked houses miles away in residential areas of Anacortes.
"Basically it's always in the back of our minds that something could happen," Anderson said.
The United States has a serious refinery accident about once every three days, according to the U.S. Chemical Safety Board.
Gasoline Production And Prices Unaffected
Shell Oil is the lead negotiator for the oil companies that own the nine refineries.
Shell spokesman Ray Fisher said he could not discuss the substance of the talks while they were under way. He said Shell's Deer Park Refinery in Texas is keeping its production up despite the strike.
"We've pulled in trained employees from other parts of our businesses and some management folks running some of the units," Fisher said. "All Shell staff — everybody's completely trained and qualified."
Tesoro officials declined interview requests. An emailed statement said Tesoro's Anacortes plant is operating normally despite the strike.
The strike is not expected to affect the nation's currently low gasoline prices.
Tesoro received some good news on Wednesday. A Washington state appeals judge knocked another $160,000 off the Texas company's fine stemming from the deadly explosion in Anacortes nearly five years ago.
The Washington Department of Labor and Industries hit Tesoro with a $2.39 million fine in October 2010. Tesoro quickly appealed.
Over the past four years, Washington Board of Industrial Insurance Appeals Judge Mark Jaffe has knocked that record fine down to $490,500, and the appeal continues.
Anne Soiza with the Department of Labor and Industries told state legislators in January that such appeals can take a decade or more to fully resolve.