Viewpoints: California is leading the way on oil refinery safety

California is poised for a major breakthrough in making its oil refineries much safer for workers and the public. If these changes are adopted – which will require the ongoing commitment of the governor and state regulators – California will lead the nation in preventing tragic accidents that kill workers and endanger nearby residents.

As head of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, the independent federal agency that investigates major chemical and refining accidents, I applaud the proposed regulations released Sept. 9 by the state Department of Industrial Relations. I was in California recently to attend a conference on the regulations, which promise to be a new way of conducting refinery operations and a national model.

The proposed rules would completely revamp and modernize the code for what is called “process safety management” in refineries. They require employers to prevent and eliminate to the greatest extent feasible health and safety risks to employees. As our board has repeatedly noted, most of the current rules tend to encourage paperwork, but don’t actually reduce risk.

The draft rules include systematic improvements recommended by the board from our investigation of the August 2012 Chevron refinery fire in Richmond. That fire endangered 19 workers and sent more than 15,000 residents to hospitals when a huge smoke and chemical vapor plume drifted over the city.

While the safety board is formally examining the proposed rules, it is already clear to me that California has taken a giant leap forward with the biggest changes proposed since the existing federal regulations took effect in 1992. I give high marks to Gov. Jerry Brown for his steps to protect workers and communities from serious oil refinery accidents. His formation of the Interagency Working Group on Refinery Safety and the important recommendations from its report earlier this year strengthen the case for reform. The key now is to work to complete and preserve these sorely needed rules.

According to business insurer Allianz, oil and gas industry losses are the highest of any industrial sector. Swiss Re, a business re-insurer, has determined that the U.S. has three to four times the accident rate of the better-regulated European refinery industry. California has a particular stake in the safety of its aging refineries, where accidents cause gasoline prices – already among the highest in the nation – to spike.

The failure to identify and fix hazards is especially important when refineries are in or near population centers – not only the Bay Area, but Los Angeles. In 2013, the safety board found identical problems at the Chevron refinery in El Segundo, just west of Los Angeles, and the Richmond facility.

We found that Chevron repeatedly failed over a 10-year period to apply safer design principles, more effective control mechanisms and upgraded piping in its crude oil processing unit, which was extremely corroded, and ultimately ruptured in Richmond. As we pointed out in our reports, current safety regulations did not require these preventative measures – a serious regulatory gap.

The new rules would require the adoption of safer processes and equipment to the greatest extent feasible. If a company claimed that was not feasible, it would have to fully document why not. In addition, “smaller accidents” or near-misses would have to be investigated by the employer and safety changes instituted to prevent much larger accidents.

I trust the proposed safety code will be adopted. When it is, other states and the federal government would do well to enhance their own refinery safety by following California’s example.