Feds call for revamp in safety regulation at US refineries

The US Chemical Safety Board (CSB) has proposed a more-rigorous safety management regulatory framework for refineries in California that could extend to refining complexes across the nation.

The recommendations came with the Dec. 16 release of the agency’s draft report on its investigation of the Aug. 6, 2012, pipe rupture and ensuing fire at Chevron Corp.’s 257,000-b/d Richmond, Calif., refinery (OGJ Online, Aug. 13, 2012; Aug. 7, 2012).

After emphasizing the frequency of major incidents occurring at US refineries over the last decade under the current regulatory approach, CSB called for California and US refiners to implement a safety case regulatory regime similar to that already adopted by refiners in Norway, the UK, and Australia.

“In contrast to the safety case, the current [US] regulatory system for process safety is largely reactive, at both the state and federal level; companies have a default right to operate, and are subject to penalties when accidents occur or their activities otherwise draw negative attention from regulators,” CSB Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso said.

“In the case of the Chevron refinery fire, the reactive system of regulation simply did not work to prevent what was ultimately a preventable accident,” Moure-Eraso said.

In its April 2013 interim report on the incident, CSB found that Chevron repeatedly failed over a 10-year period to apply inherently safer design principles and upgrade piping in its crude oil processing unit, which was extremely corroded and ultimately ruptured by the time of August 2012 incident (OGJ Online, Apr. 15, 2013).

The shift to a safety case regime would represent a fundamental change to current US practices by shifting the responsibility for continuous reductions in major accident risks from regulators to the company by requiring companies to demonstrate to refinery industry regulators—through a written “safety case report”—how major hazards are to be controlled and risks reduced to as low as reasonably practicable, CSB said.

While the report’s recommendations are targeted at California refiners, CSB said the current US safety system has fallen behind, and that everyone would benefit from “the enhanced advantages of the more adaptable and effective” safety case approach to regulation.

“We believe our draft report provides a definitive examination of the advantages of the safety case system, one that would not only benefit California but the US as well,” said CSB investigator Amanda Johnson.

While Chevron has yet to comment on the draft report, the United Steelworkers union said in a Dec. 16 news release that it will be working closely with its Local 5 members—many of whom work at the Richmond plant—and other stakeholders to review the draft and provide comments to help ensure future incidents such as those at Richmond never occur again.

Following a comment period that runs through Jan. 3, 2014, CSB will consider the draft report for formal adoption at a public meeting on Jan. 15, 2014.

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