A bad day in the refinery

The instructor for a safety training class, which was a mandatory prerequisite for working in the area’s refineries, used to intone: ‘It’s a bad day in the refinery’, whenever he cited incidents caused by safety hazards.

If you live in the Greater Houston area, you are inundated on an almost monthly basis with news of fires, explosions and product emissions from the large number of chemical plants and refineries. Melissa Luck of the Houston Chronicle writes about public concerns regarding the petrochemical reputation and negative stereotypes.

A plume of smoke rose from a petrochemical fire at the Intercontinental Terminals Company (ITC) on Monday 18 March 2019 in Deer Park, Texas. On that day, authorities said that the large fire at the Houston-area petrochemicals terminal would likely burn for another two days, noting that air quality around the facility was testing within normal guidelines.

The Deer Park petrochemical blaze prompted school closures, shelter-in-place orders, spikes in benzene levels and ship channel closures. It also cast a shadow over a petrochemical sector that has struggled to counter negative stereotypes that present the industry as dirty and dangerous.

Petrochemical professionals in interviews at two industry conferences in San Antonio, Texas, said that major incidents such as the fire at the ITC undermine much of the work that companies have carried out to reshape the image of their industry by emphasising its culture of safety and environmental responsibility, as well as its role as an economic engine that attracts billions of dollars in investment, generates tens of thousands of jobs and provides the materials that make modern life possible.

Industry professionals acknowledged that one disaster can bruise the entire industry’s reputation, potentially sparking public blowback, new regulations or increased scrutiny at a time when the industry is in the middle of a boom. The Deer Park fire started 17 March 2019, damaging 11 storage tanks in a blaze that burned for days. Although there were no injuries, elevated benzene readings around the plant on the Thursday forced shelter-in-place orders and school closures, while toxic run-off from the site closed a seven-mile stretch of the Houston Ship Channel for three days before it was partially reopened on Monday afternoon.

Beyond the Deer Park fire, the issue of image has become a growing concern, not only for petrochemical companies but also for the broader energy industry, as a new generation of workers wants to work for companies perceived as having strong corporate responsibility and environmental records. Refining and petrochemical industry executives from Chevron, Motiva Enterprises, Valero Energy Corporation, ExxonMobil and Chevron Phillips Chemical spoke at the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers Conference in San Antonio about the need to ’reshape the narrative’ concerning their industries and counter the demonisation of fossil fuels and the chemicals made from them, including plastics. “We know what we do is good. We’re just miserable at communicating it to anyone else,” said Joe Gorder, CEO of Valero Energy Corp. “We’re communicating it now better than we have.”

However, disasters such as the Deer Park fire, the Arkema plant explosion in Crosby, Texas, after Hurricane Harvey or the Deepwater Horizon tragedy in the Gulf of Mexico make it all the more difficult to improve the energy industry’s image. Even in Houston, where petrochemical companies are major employers and residents tend to be more sympathetic, major disruptive accidents still stoke worry, fear and negative attitudes towards the industry. “Research suggests that overall public trust in the petrochemical industry and the government agencies that regulate them already is low,” said Rachel Meidl of Rice University. Meidl has spent her career working as a hazardous materials safety management administrator for the federal government and working on policy for the chemical industry’s trade group, the American Chemistry Council. “Regardless of whether individual companies have compiled strong safety and environmental records, well-publicised accidents, spills and other problems damage these companies, which are painted with the same broad brush,” Meidl said.

“It does raise the scrutiny for everybody and it is difficult for the industry to regain public trust,” Meidl said. “But I think there is so much to be said for transparency and being honest about what you know and what you do not know, all of which enables companies to achieve social legitimacy and public trust.”

Anyone in the petrochemical industry will tell you that safety is their licence to operate. Workers start their shifts every day with safety meetings, every site has an active emergency response plan and larger facilities have emergency personnel on site at all times, including professional fire and medical response personnel.

Not to be forgotten are the engineers who plan the plant monitoring programmes and the NDT professionals who generate the data that allows evaluation of the accumulated data for determination of safe pressure equipment life.

In 2017, the incidence rate for non-fatal injuries in the petrochemical sector was less than one per 100 workers, which is about four times lower than the overall manufacturing industry, according to the US Labor Department. Overall, the American Chemistry Council said that chemical companies have reduced the number of safety incidents that result in product spills, fires, explosions or injuries by 60% since 1995.

The ITC fire in Deer Park will undoubtedly spur other companies to look inward at their own safety processes, especially once the results of a federal investigation into the causes of the fire are released. Both the American Chemistry Council and the state trade group Texas Chemical Council said they would review the findings of federal investigators to see if there are broader lessons for the rest of the industry.

Environmentalists, however, say the public still has reason for skepticism. Major incidents may be rare but, according to a 2016 Houston Chronicle investigation, a chemical accident, spill or unauthorised release happened about every six weeks in the Houston area. While emissions of the carcinogenic chemical benzene associated with the Deer Park fire raised alarms in recent days, just ten Texas chemical plants, storage terminals and other energy facilities poured 47,200 pounds of benzene beyond what their permits allowed in 2017, according to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality 

In 2017, unauthorised emissions from industrial facilities, including oil & gas and chemical operations, grew by 27% to 63,000,000 pounds of illegal air pollution, according to state data analysed by the advocacy group Environment Texas. However, despite the increased emissions, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality only fined companies two cents per every pound of air pollution emissions, Environment Texas found. This creates a culture where companies will avoid taking measures to prevent pollution and major accidents because it is just cheaper to pay the fines, if indeed there are any fines at all. Most of these accidents are preventable or controllable if the companies made the investments in better equipment and training. Unfortunately, the state, environmental agencies and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are not creating regulatory regimes that force companies to put health & safety ahead of profit.

So, for a large number of inhabitants of the Greater Houston area whose income is derived from refining, processing and transportation of chemical and petroleum products, they have more ‘bad days at the refinery’ in their 

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