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January 07, 2014
CSB critical of refinery safety regs

In a hard-hitting draft report, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) traces the origins of an August 2012 fire at Chevron’s Richmond, California, petroleum refinery to the inadequacies of regulations issued by both the state and federal governments to ensure the processes and equipment at refineries do not endanger employees, the public, property, and equipment. 

According to the CSB, California’s process safety management (PSM) regulations and its federal counterparts (U.S. OSHA’s PSM and U.S. EPA’s risk management program [PSM]) are “reactive and activity-based” approaches to safety that do not require that specific safety goals are achieved. 

CSB’s report recommends that the California and federal governments overhaul these regulations with a safety case system that has been adopted overseas (e.g., the United Kingdom, Norway, and Australia), which requires that refinery risks be reduced as low as reasonably practicable (ALARP).

Sulfur corrosion

The Chevron accident involved the rupture of a 52-ince carbon steel pipe that released flammable hydrocarbon process fluid.  A large vapor cloud formed, engulfed 19 Chevron employees, and then ignited.  The employees escaped, but the continued burning of the vapor released a plume that traveled across Richmond.  Approximately 15,000 people from the surrounding area sought medical treatment due to the release. 

In an April 2013 report, the CSB found that the wall of the ruptured pipe had thinned to an excessive degree due to corrosion caused by sulfur compounds in the crude oil feed.  Virtually all crude oil feeds contain sulfur compounds, and this type of corrosion, called sulfidation corrosion, is a damage mechanism present at every refinery that processes crude oil. 
“In 2012 alone, the CSB tracked 125 significant process safety incidents at U.S. petroleum refineries,” says the CSB.  “Seventeen of these took place in California.”

Paperwork safety

The core of CSB’s report is that Chevron’s actions to comply with state and federal regulations intended to prevent such accidents are essentially “paperwork” exercises that do not ensure that follow-up actions will be effective.  

The CSB states:
“Under the existing regulatory regimes for onshore petroleum refineries in the U.S. and California, such as the PSM and RMP programs, there is no requirement to reduce risks to ALARP.  For example, under both PSM and RMP an employer must ‘control’ hazards when conducting a process hazard analysis (PHA) of a covered process.  However, there is no requirement to address the effectiveness of the controls or the hierarchy of controls.  Thus, a PHA that meets the regulatory requirements may inadequately identify or mitigate major hazard risk.  In addition, there is no requirement to submit PHAs to the regulator, and the regulator is not responsible for assessing the quality of the PHA or the proposed safeguards.”

Goal-based requirements

The CSB recommends that the activity-based requirements resulting from the above approach be replaced by the goal-based approach contained in the safety-case system.  According to the CSB, the safety-case system places the primary responsibility on the refinery, rather than on the regulator, to ensure that needed measures are properly completed.  Specifically, a written case for safety, known as the safety case report, is generated by the duty holder and is rigorously reviewed, audited, and enforced by highly technically competent inspectors with skill sets familiar to those employed by the industries they oversee. 

More employee power

The CSB also urges that United States and state regulations be amended to give employees more power in addressing safety hazards.  The CSB found that in the 10 years before the incident, “highly knowledgeable and experienced Chevron technical staff repeatedly recommended that inspectors perform 100 percent component inspections on high temperature carbon steel piping susceptible to sulfidation corrosion.  These recommendations were not implemented.”

While OSHA’s PSM requires that employers consult with employees and their representatives on the effectiveness of the PSM measures undertaken, the safety-case regulations go further in that they provide for the election of safety representatives by the workers to serve many health- and safety-related functions, including investigating complaints and accidents and carrying out inspections.  In the United States, safety-case regulatory regimes have been adopted by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and NASA. 

CSB’s draft report

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