Refinery blues


The Sinclair Wyoming Refinery's clumsy environmental record continues to stumble: Last week, some 80 dead birds, most of them western grebes, were found in a wastewater pond laced with oil spilled from an undetermined source in the refinery.

The accident is the latest in a spate of spills (see our story, "Sinclair flare up") at the refinery in the past year. In frequency and scale, Sinclair's spills are particularly egregious compared to other Wyoming refineries. The release last May of nearly 3 million gallons of gasoline-grade fuel was the worst spill in the state in decades. But as crack energy reporter Dustin Bleizeffer of the Casper Star-Tribune points out, their dismal safety record is a glimpse into a statewide problem:

If you've lived next to a refinery in Wyoming in the past 10 years, then you may have had residual oil rain down on your home, car and head.

Or you might have been caught in a rain of brownish silica catalyst, or been overwhelmed by a rotten-egg smell for days, or seen dramatic flares of toxic emissions streaming off the smokestacks like giant orange banners.


In September, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency levied a $7 million fine against Frontier Oil Corp.'s Cheyenne refinery for allegedly dumping toxic wastes into a storm water pond. Refinery officials said they would fight the fine.

Also in 2009, Wyoming Refining Co. signed a cooperative agreement with EPA settling alleged violations related to "past performance" at its refinery in Newcastle. The refinery agreed to pay $14 million in new pollution control equipment and pay an "assessment" of $150,000 under the cooperative agreement.

Last month, an explosion at a refinery in Anacortes, Wash., killed seven people, prompting greater scrutiny nationwide of refinery safety records and the regulatory mechanisms keeping tabs on them. What's been uncovered since is troubling: Just after the explosion the AP reported that U.S. refineries "have an ongoing problem with accidents that turn deadly, losing four times as much money from such incidents than refineries in the rest of the world." Even compared to other hazard-prone American industries, refineries post a poor track record:

The (Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board), which makes nonbinding recommendations, oversees investigations on accidents in 150 refineries in the United States and tens of thousands of chemical plants. But about half of the outstanding investigations are of accidents at refineries, officials said.

Concerned about refinery safety, the Occupational Safety and Healthy Administration stepped up inspections in 2007. But as the head of the agency, David Michaels, told a congressional hearing last week, no one's keeping track of companies' safety records on a national level. As for enforcement, OSHA doesn't carry a very big stick:

Michaels said there were other shortcomings in federal worker safety laws, including weak civil fines and criminal penalties. The top fine OSHA can levy is $7,000, and that hasn't been raised in 20 years, (Michaels) said.

"The fines and penalties on environmental matters are tougher," said Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the committee chairman.

Michaels also said that OSHA couldn't remove workers or shut down a dangerous work site without a court order.

"The OSHA law is very weak," he said, adding that the Obama administration supports toughening the federal regulations. "American workers still face unacceptable hazards."
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