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In aftermath of Chevron fire, California to tighten regulations on oil refineries

In California, the Department of Industrial Relations (DIR), the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES) and the California Environmental Protection Agency (CalEPA) announced a set of regulations to strengthen workplace and environmental safety at oil refineries across the state.

California has 19 oil refineries that process approximately two million barrels of petroleum per day into a variety of products, with gasoline representing about half of the total product volume, according to the California Energy Commission.

On a statewide average, about 12% of the product from California's refineries is aviation fuel, 13% is distillate fuel and 9% is residual fuel.

The regulatory proposals are intended to make California refineries safer both for workers and surrounding communities. The two regulations implement key recommendations of the Governor’s Interagency Working Group on Refinery Safety, and are the result of a multi-year effort, including extensive consultation with workers, industry, NGOs, and communities, following a serious chemical release and fire at Chevron’s Richmond oil refinery in August 2012.

The proposal includes two complementary regulations—one overhauling Cal/OSHA worker safety regulations as they apply to refineries and another strengthening the California Accidental Release Prevention program (CalARP) regulations designed to prevent the accidental release of hazardous substances that could harm public health and the environment. DIR, Cal OES, and CalEPA have collaborated to ensure that the two regulations are aligned.

The proposed regulations incorporate advanced principles of safer engineering and management, as well as attention to the human and organizational elements of safety. Key features of the proposed regulations include:

  • Increased employer accountability for the mechanical integrity of refinery equipment;

  • Requirements to adopt inherently safer designs and systems, to the greatest extent feasible;

  • Increased employee involvement in all aspects of the safety and prevention program;

  • Periodic workplace safety culture assessments to evaluate whether management is appropriately emphasizing safety over production pressures;

  • Authority for refinery personnel to shut down a unit if needed in the event of an unsafe condition or emergency and provisions for anonymous reporting of safety hazards;

  • Requirements for investigations to determine root causes of any incidents that do occur and develop interim and permanent corrective measures in response; and

  • Annual public reporting of refinery safety metrics.

Major incidents at oil and gas refineries pose a significant risk to refinery workers and nearby communities while costing Californians an average of $800 million a year in disruption to fuel supplies.

Cal OES and DIR’s Occupational Standards Board will provide a minimum of 45 days to solicit comment on the proposed regulations. A public hearing on the Process Safety Management regulation will be held in Sacramento on 15 September; a public hearing on the CalARP regulation has not yet been scheduled.

Following a serious chemical release and fire at Chevron’s Richmond oil refinery in August 2012, Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr. called for an Interagency Working Group to examine ways to improve public and worker safety through enhanced oversight of refineries, and to strengthen emergency preparedness in anticipation of any future incident. The Working Group consisted of participants from 13 agencies and departments, as well as the Governor’s office.

Over an eight-month period, the Working Group met with industry, labor, community, environmental, academic, local emergency response and other stakeholders. It also worked closely with the Contra Costa County Health Services Hazardous Materials Division, which implements an industrial safety ordinance that served as a model for the proposed refinery safety regulations. In February 2014 the Working Group issued a final report with recommendations to improve safety practices at refineries and develop more reliable and effective emergency response plans. The proposed regulations implement one of four key recommendations of the final report.

California now has an Interagency Refinery Task Force, headed by CalEPA with participation from DIR, its division Cal/OSHA, and 11 other federal, state, and local agencies and departments. The task force works collaboratively to achieve the highest possible level of safety for refinery workers and local communities, and prepare for and effectively respond to emergencies if they occur.


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