New regulations in the pipeline for California refineries
on September 19, 2016
Four years after a fire swept through Richmond’s Chevron Refinery, the result of a corroded pipe long neglected, state officials are putting the final touches on a set of regulations they say will make California’s oil industry far safer—but critics say the rules still have far to go.
The new rules under consideration by the state’s Occupational Safety & Health Standards Board would put teeth on existing federal Process Safety Management standards, making them enforceable by clarifying murky language, said Charlotte Brody, vice president for health initiatives at BlueGreen Alliance, which lobbies on behalf of labor unions and environmental organizations.
“If you’re going to have rules, the rules need to matter,” said Brody. “It’s giving people who want to keep California refineries safe the power to do that job.”
The proposed rules would increase employee involvement in safety decisions and require annual reporting of refinery safety metrics and “workplace safety culture” assessments to ensure that management prioritizes safety over production.
The effort to strengthen regulations on the industry is a direct result of the Chevron fire, after which Governor Jerry Brown called for an interagency working group to improve refinery safety and preparedness for future incidents.
Brody, who also helped write the new rules, said that if these regulations had been in place before Aug. 6, 2012—the day of the blaze—the refinery fire would not have happened.
Thursday marked the end of a period for public comment on the draft regulations. The Standards Board will now consider and respond to any proposed changes before adopting the measures, said Julia Bernstein, a spokesperson for the California Department of Industrial Relations, in a written statement.
Brody said the BlueGreen Alliance sees the proposed regulations as a substantial improvement over the status quo, although there are still loopholes the organization hopes the Standards Board addresses.
One loophole: current language requires that refineries act in a “timely manner” upon discovering a potentially deadly problem to develop a plan to address that problem—but does not specify exactly how quickly they must act.
In her statement, Bernstein said the regulations are sufficiently strong. They “incorporate the most advanced principles of safer engineering and management,” she wrote.
Chevron officials declined to comment on the regulations. The Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA), a trade association that represents refineries, including Chevron’s, also declined to comment. A July statement from the association’s president, Catherine Reheis-Boyd, said that WSPA and its member companies were reviewing the regulations and had been “actively engaged” during their development.
An August 2016 report by Process Improvement Institute, a company that specializes in process management review, found that Chevron’s Richmond refinery had “established a renewed and vigorous effort” to reduce accidents onsite, but also noted several overlooked areas of weakness—including poor reporting of “near misses,” which could help identify dangers that might eventually lead to accidents.
Residents’ complaints of flare ups at the Chevron plant this summer underscore the ongoing anxieties of those who live in proximity to the refinery and advocates’ urgent calls to implement the regulations.
“The idea is to address problems when they’re small enough to fix and to recognize that you get catastrophic incidents when holes are allowed to get big,” said Brody.
Bernstein said the Standards Board has until July 2017 to submit the final proposal for adoption into law. But Brody said she hopes the regulations will be adopted by the end of the winter.
“We just want this rule before another refinery blows up,” she said.
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