Capitol Alert

Refinery inspection bill would blunt records access

A bill to allow government regulators to monitor oil refinery shutdowns is drawing heavy criticism from media organizations because of its potential impact on the California Public Records Act.

The measure, introduced by Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, in the wake of the massive fire at the Chevron refinery in Richmond in 2012, would allow regulators to complete detailed inspections during planned, periodic shutdowns called “turnaround.”

It would also expand the definition of what constitutes a trade secret and tighten access to information about the refineries through the state’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health. Media organizations have registered their opposition, contending the ability to access records would be hanstrung.

“From our prospective, it’s not only a perversion of the Public Records Act but a perversion of the public’s role in government oversight,” said Jim Ewert, general counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Association.

Under Senate Bill 1300, if a member of the public wanted to see a record about the refinery they could submit a request to the Cal-OSHA, which then would have to notify the refinery. The refinery would have 30 days to challenge the release in court as a trade secret. The requester would become a named defendant and be liable for court costs. It would entitle the prevailing party to costs and fees.

The public access language was originally included in the bill and remained for two months. It was reinserted in the waning weeks of the legislative session.

Hans Hemann, Hancock’s chief of staff, said the measure is a key element of the work the senator’s office has done since the fire to increase refinery safety, including increasing fees on the operators and tripling the number of inspectors. A similar effort failed last year over objections to trade secrets being released.

Sen. Hancock strongly believes that we should be taking a proactive approach to preventing mass or large explosions that can harm the public and environment,” Hemann said. “If we passed this bill ... California will have the most robust refinery inspection program in the country.”