Oil Report

Hazards persist at U.S. refineries -union survey

DENVER, Nov 5 (Reuters) - Hazardous conditions like those at BP Plc’s Texas refinery prior to a deadly 2005 explosion are “pervasive in U.S. refineries,” a survey conducted by the United Steelworkers union has found.

Ninety percent of 51 refineries surveyed had at least one of the conditions that led to the deadly March 23, 2005, BP Texas City refinery explosion, according to the survey’s conclusions.

The survey, completed in October and seen by Reuters, was of United Steelworkers local unions representing workers at the 51 refineries.

The survey’s findings are in line with the results of investigations of the Texas City blast by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board and an independent panel led by former Secretary of State James Baker III.

The 51 USW-represented refineries participating in the survey account for 34 percent of the 149 refineries in the United States and 49 percent of the 17.4 million barrels in daily national refining capacity.

In the last three years, 66 percent of the refineries covered by the survey had atmospheric vents like the one at the Texas City refinery from which a volatile hydrocarbon vapor cloud was released.

The vapor cloud settled around temporary work trailers being used by contract workers at the BP refinery. The ignition of the vapor cloud during the restart of an octane-enhancing unit killed 15 people working in and around the trailers, none of whom was involved the unit restart.

“The findings indicate that the U.S. refinery industry remains plagued by the threat of refinery catastrophes like the fires and explosions that engulfed workers at BP’s Texas City refinery -- catastrophes that are preventable,” according to the study’s conclusions.

Among the questions asked on the survey were those concerning the use of atmospheric vents, placing trailers in hazardous areas, allowing nonessential workers near units during restarts and shutdowns and management of instruments and alarm systems.

The Chemical Safety Board investigation of the Texas City blast found instruments and alarms that could have warned of the problems prior to the BP blast were not working or gave misleading information.

To correct the hazardous conditions, the survey calls for more robust safety programs at the refineries, more active U.S. government enforcement of existing safety standards and the adoption of a national set of safety standards and benchmarks, among other recommendations. (Editing by Christian Wiessner )