Steelworkers, allies push oil industry to increase safety at refineries

NORCO, La. – How bad is the oil refining industry’s pollution and worker safety problem? Well, let’s put it this way: It virtually ruined an industry-backed Thanksgiving Day parade.

Spectators gathered last month in Norco, La., to watch the parade, partially sponsored by the Motiva Refining Company. But the Steelworkers and Louisiana Bucket Brigade, a non-profit organization that monitors the industry and its safety record, report the crowd suffered from stinging eyes and people were gasping for air.

And where was the acrid smoke that caused such distress coming from? It was flaring, constantly, from the stack of Motiva’s own 233,500-barrels-a-day Norco refinery.

The Thanksgiving Day fiasco incident symbolizes the health and safety record, or lack of it, that characterizes oil refining, and has for years, say USW spokeswoman Lynne Hancock and Anne Rolfes, founding director of the Bucket Brigade. USW and the safety group collaborated on a report detailing the oil industry’s record.

The report shows that in 2011, the most recent year data were available, Louisiana’s 17 refineries self-reported 301 accidents – 5.7 per week – that released, the oil firms said, more than 1 million pounds of toxic gases into the air and 1.3 million gallons of hazardous substances, such as benzene, into the Pelican State’s waters.

That’s 50,000 pounds more of toxic gases than the refineries produced the year before – and almost four times as many gallons of hazardous substances into the water.

And that may be understating the problem, both speakers and their report said. That’s because the refineries frequently report accidents as “small” in terms of releasing poisons when they aren’t, or minor even when workers get injured or killed on the job.

For example, the ExxonMobil refinery in Baton Rouge, the second largest refinery in the U.S., reported a 10-pound benzene leak in the middle of this year. A probe by the Bucket Brigade staff, interviews with residents and – eventually – a state investigation showed the true size of the leak: 31,000 pounds.

Even with self-reporting by the refiners, and workers often too scared to report toxic threats or accidents, state and federal data and worker and community interviews combine to paint a sorry record of the state of health and safety in and around the nation’s oil refineries. The data is in the report, Common Ground: The Call For Cooperation To Reduce Accidents At Refineries In Louisiana.

The way to solve the accident, safety and health problem, USW and the group say, is for the refiners to first admit they have a problem and then work with workers and communities on solving it.

Safety improvements – especially union-management collaboration to lessen hazards – have been a big goal in USW’s last two rounds of bargaining with refiners, who deny they have a problem. They haven’t budged on the issue, to USW’s dismay.

“This report offers a window into what is really going on at Louisiana’s refineries. They help our union make the case for how unsafe this industry can be,” Gary Beevers, the USW vice president who heads its refinery workers sector, told Louisiana reporters.

“Instead of ignoring the results of this report or doubting the accuracy of the public records on which the data is based, refiners should work with our union and the community to make these plants safer,” he added.

“No one wants these refineries to shut down, but refiners can do more to ensure the safety and health of their workers and the community. ExxonMobil definitely has the financial resources to do a better job,” he added.

But refinery safety and health problems aren’t confined to Motiva, or ExxonMobil, or Louisiana, Hancock and White say.

Hancock says the refinery problems are nationwide, as refineries are complex plants where many things can go wrong, and where workers are intimidated and afraid to report problems lest they lose their jobs. Rolfes noted the federal government found a pro-industry bias in Louisiana enforcement. Other states, led by California, are tougher.

But the problems can be lessened two ways, Rolfes and Hancock said: Tougher enforcement and laws, as in California, and hiring more workers and unionizing them.

That not only puts more hands on the job – which lets workers stop accidents more quickly – but also can introduce an outside watchdog, the joint union-management safety committee, to both monitor conditions and demand improved safety measures.

Until they face the facts, the oil industry, our economy, our environment and our health will suffer,” Rolfes adds.

Photo: Motiva Norco flaring Dec. 2. Louisiana Bucket Brigade Facebook


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.