Years After Tragedy, Tesoro Ducks Penalties For Refinery Deaths

fromKUOW

Workers at American oil refineries die on the job about three times as often as their counterparts in Europe. As John Ryan of KUOW reports, when accidents do kill American workers, the companies they work for rarely pay a heavy price. Case in point: Tesoro, which hasn't incurred a significant penalty since its Washington state refinery exploded in 2010, killing seven people.

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. When a big industrial accident occurs we report on it, but all too often we don't hear about what happens or doesn't happen to the party at fault. In 2010, a Tesoro oil refinery in Washington State exploded. The blast killed seven people. It was the State's deadliest industrial accident in nearly half a century. But as of today, the company has not paid any fines and no one has been prosecuted. John Ryan of member station KUOW has the story.

JOHN RYAN, BYLINE: It was just after midnight on a chilly April night. A fireball half the size of a football field erupted from the Tesoro Refinery on the outskirts of Anacortes. A plume of black smoke drifted toward the seaside town about an hour north of Seattle. 911 calls poured in.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: 911.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Hi. What was the explosion that just happened at 12:31 and shook the whole building?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: It was near the refineries and I don't have any other information.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Oh, my God, I hear the sirens going. I'm going to pray for them.

RYAN: That fireball killed seven Tesoro workers. Its taken federal investigators four years to complete their long, overdue study of the accident causes. Yet the question of who's responsible still hasn't been answered fully.

HERSHEL JANZ: Four years is a long time.

RYAN: That's Hershel Janz. His son Lew died after suffering severing burns in the explosion. Lew Janz left behind two daughters and a fiance.

JANZ: I miss that boy as much tonight as I did four years ago. And I'll miss him if I live 40 years from now. I will miss them just as much. There's just no closure.

RYAN: Hershel's son Lew Janz was part of a team trying to restart a piece of high-pressure equipment. It had been operating for decades without being inspected for the type of corrosion that caused it to explode. Last year, refinery owner Tesoro agreed to pay millions to families of the dead in an out of court settlement. But the Texas oil company is fighting government accusations that it willfully endangered its workers. Back in 2010, it was big news when Washington State hit Tesoro with the largest workplace safety fine in state history.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: A $2.39 million fine - the largest penalty ever issued by the Department of Labor and Industries.

RYAN: That record penalty might sound like a strong deterrent but Tesoro is a Fortune 100 company. It brings in that much money in about half an hour. Tesoro officials declined to be interviewed for this story but in a prepared statement the company says, safety has improved so much at the Anacortes plant that it's now one of America's safest refineries. Tesoro attorneys have been fighting the Washington State penalties in court for the past three and half years. So far an appeals judge has knocked two thirds off the fine and it could go lower. Rick Gleason is a former safety inspector. He teaches workplace safety at the University of Washington. He says, the long delays and twiddling down the penalties are at par for the course for major industrial accidents.

RICK GLEASON: The appeals process can go on for many years. It takes a long, long time for these ultimately to be resolved.

RYAN: Since the refinery explosion, Tesoro has won $1 billion in federal contracts. If Tesoro wins its appeals, it could preserve the companies ability to do business with the federal government. Under an executive order President Barack Obama signed in July, companies with the worst violations of labor laws would be barred from federal contracts.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Our tax dollars shouldn't go to companies that violate workplace laws. They shouldn't go to companies that violate worker rights.

RYAN: Obama said, 1 out of 4 companies with poor labor and safety records get federal contracts.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

OBAMA: If a company is going to receive taxpayer money it should have safe workplaces.

RYAN: Violating federal workplace safety laws is only a misdemeanor, even if workers are killed, so the Justice Department and the EPA are trying to go after Tesoro under federal environmental laws, they're much tougher. Four years into that criminal investigation no charges have been filed. Business groups say, government should focus on preventing accidents rather than punishing business after the fact. Almost everyone involved in industrial safety says, the goal is zero accidents. But Hershel Janz who's son died from the Tesoro explosion doesn't share that hope.

JANZ: The community appreciates the refineries being here, accidents are going to continue to happen. That's just the way it is with the oil industry. You can't totally eliminate accidents or fatalities.

RYAN: The U.S. Chemical Safety Board investigates the nation's worst industrial accidents. It says, on average, across the nation there's a significant accident at an oil refinery once every three days. For NPR News, I'm John Ryan in Seattle.

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