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OSHA Issues $165K Fines in Refinery Blast

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

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Federal worker-safety regulators have issued nearly $165,000 in fines to ExxonMobil in relation to an explosion late last year at a Louisiana refinery with a history of issues related to corrosion.

The incident on Nov. 22, 2016, resulted in injuries to four workers when a valve on an alkylation unit reportedly broke, releasing isobutane that was then ignited by another piece of machinery. While the U.S. Chemical Safety Board has yet to issue its report on the incident, OSHA issued its citations in May—a total of nine violations with a proposed price tag of $164,775.

Baton Rouge refinery
WClarke, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

OSHA has proposed nearly $165,000 in fines for ExxonMobil in relation to an explosion that sent four workers from its Baton Rouge refinery to the hospital last November.

The OSHA citations do not detail the incident itself, but describe a number of alleged safety shortcomings uncovered in investigations conducted in the wake of the November explosion. According to a spokesperson, ExxonMobil cooperated with OSHA's investigation and is contesting the violations and penalties.

Repeat Pipe-Inspection Violation

The most notable is a violation OSHA classified as “repeat”: ExxonMobil, the agency says, failed to perform timely external visual inspections and ultrasonic testing on piping circuits in the alkylation units. Piping should undergo visual inspections every five years, and UT examination either every five years or at an interval equivalent to half the remaining life of the equipment, according to OSHA.

That violation comes with a proposed fine of $63,375, and was deemed to be a repeat violation because ExxonMobil received a citation for the same violation at its Baytown, Texas, refinery in August 2016.

Other Violations

The citations also include nine “serious” violations, mostly process safety violations and inspection-related matters. According to OSHA, ExxonMobil:

  • Failed to maintain a written record of process safety information related to the Durco plug valve that was involved in the incident;
  • Did not ensure written safety procedure for a pump swap involving pumps in the alkylation unit;
  • Did not certify annually that operating procedures were current and accurate;
  • Did not provide proper training for the safe performance of tasks in the unit;
  • Did not establish written procedures for valve operation and maintenance (including inspections);
  • Did not perform inspections of certain pressure vessels and pipes at the refinery within a period of five and in some cases 10 years;
  • Did not ensure a written procedure for managing the replacement of plug valves and related equipment; and
  • Did not ensure a timely compliance audit for the alkylation unit (an audit was performed in 2013, and a new audit should have been performed in 2016 but according to OSHA was not).

Company Response

Exxon spokesperson Charlotte Huffaker told PaintSquare Daily News that the company conducted an internal investigation into the November incident, but the company did not provide further detail regarding the nature of the explosion and whether corrosion may have played a role in the malfunction of the valve. "Based on this investigation, we have determined the cause of the Nov. 22 incident and have taken appropriate corrective actions," Huffaker said in an email.

"Of note, in January 2017, the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ) conducted a regulatory Risk Management Program (RMP) inspection at the Baton Rouge Refinery," Huffaker added. " As a result of this inspection, LDEQ determined that there were no areas of concern."

When asked whether changes have been made to abate issues that were alleged in the OSHA citations, Huffaker said, "Nothing is more important than the safety and health of our employees, our contractors and the people who live and work around our operations. We learn from all incidents and use this information to improve our safety programs and operational performance."

Huffaker also noted that in the past five years, the Total Recordable Incident Rate at the Baton Rouge complex has been reduced by more than 60 percent.

2013 EPA Report

The Baton Rouge refinery came under criticism in 2013 when an EPA report characterized some of the facility’s pipes as “heavily corroded,” a description the company disputed. That report came in the wake of a 2012 incident in which 50,000 pounds of toxic chemicals were released from the refinery.

Refinery piping

A 2013 EPA report alleged that pipes at the refinery were "heavily corroded."

The EPA report alleged “failure to inspect underground piping, failure to have inspection records and failure to correct deficiencies as required” by EPA rules. It also said ExxonMobil had failed to report one accidental release at the facility, an incident in which nine people were sent to the hospital due to a possible carbon monoxide release.

ExxonMobil's Huffaker noted that the EPA eventually withdrew all but two of the alleged risk management plan violations referred to in 2013. "The final settlement references EPA allegations regarding annual certification of two operating procedures in 2009 and two incidents where personnel did not follow safety procedures while performing maintenance," she said.


Tagged categories: Accidents; Corrosion; Fire; Health & Safety; Health and safety; NA; North America; Oil and Gas

Comment from Thomas Van Hooser, (7/19/2017, 8:52 AM)

It would seem that this organization is trying to use their injury incident rates to defend themselves. Concerns relating to unsafe conditions is apparently not considered in their overall safety evaluation and performance systems. I have always believed that a performance index system needs to be developed by industry/government that incorporates injuries, near misses, property damage, audits/inspections, citations, would give a more realistic view of an organizations overall safety performance.

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