Accusing Tesoro Corp. of treating safety as “almost an afterthought,” an assistant attorney general Tuesday blamed a corporate culture that put profit over people for a deadly explosion in 2010 that killed seven workers at the company’s Anacortes refinery.
But a lawyer for Tesoro argued the company applies safety measures that go beyond industry and regulatory standards.
Judge Mark Jaffe with the Board of Industrial Insurance Appeals heard opening statements Tuesday in a hearing on Tesoro’s appeal of 39 willful violations and five serious violations of safety and health regulations, as well as more than $2 million in fines issued by the state Department of Labor and Industries six months after the Anacortes refinery explosion.
The incident was one of the largest industrial disasters in Washington history.
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“Tesoro is in a high-risk, highreward business, but with a twist,” said Assistant Attorney General Brian Dew in his opening. “The employees take the risk, and (the company takes) the reward.”
Tesoro lawyer Peter Modlin disputed Labor and Industries’ characterization of the refinery’s operations.
Modlin said in his opening that the explosion and deaths were a terrible tragedy, but that evidence will show Tesoro acted in good faith to follow industry standards and protocols for the safety and health of its workers.
“There will simply not be a shred of evidence presented by the (Labor and Industries) department that Tesoro was indifferent to worker safety,” Modlin said.
Jaffe also heard testimony Tuesday from a refinery operator who was among the first responders to the scene of the explosion and resulting fire.
Robert Spiller, a 14-year employee at the Anacortes refinery, described his efforts on the night of April 2, 2010, to extinguish flames leaping from a section of the plant that treated naphtha – an oily, flammable substance that’s a byproduct of the refining process. The section included two banks of heat exchangers, one of which split violently.
Spiller told Jaffe he used a turret hose to spray water onto the fire from about 30-40 yards away. He also described how he began turning the hose onto several of the refinery workers caught in the blast whom he saw lying on the ground, the flames overtaking them.
“I felt I was about as close to that fire as I wanted to be,” Spiller said.
Dew questioned the completeness of the fire response training Spiller received at the refinery, but on crossexamination, Spiller said he didn’t do anything the night of the incident that he felt was outside the scope of his capabilities.
Spiller testified that he lost radio contact with the refinery’s incident command while he fought the flames with the turret hose.
Opening arguments Tuesday focused on the Anacortes refinery’s track record of safety inspections, particularly in the heat exchangers where the fatal explosion occurred.
The explosion was caused by High Temperature Hydrogen Attack or HTHA, which severely cracked and weakened carbon-steel tubing inside the “E” exchanger and led to a rupture, according to a report from the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, which conducted an investigation.
The report found the tubing that burst was estimated to be operating within the petroleum industry’s current Nelson Curve guidelines for that material. Nelson Curves are used to predict and manage HTHA damage based upon the heat and pressure placed on a material.
Dew said Tesoro had ample opportunity to inspect the refinery’s exchangers for dangerous corrosion in the decade leading up to the explosion. He argued that several hazard reviews of the refinery’s exchangers showed temperatures and pressure levels that should have spurred a closer look at the exchangers’ integrity.
He told Jaffe that conditions to cause a High Temperature Hydrogen Attack were apparent inside at least two exchangers, including the one that ruptured.
Modlin said Tesoro hired outside experts to review corrosion at the plant and make recommendations every four to five years. He said those experts were “recognized industry leaders” who followed the industry standards set by the American Petroleum Institute.
Prior to the explosion, a specialist recommended inspection in two of the six exchangers in the refinery’s Naphtha Hydrotreater Unit, but not in the exchanger that ultimately caused the explosion.
“Those corrosion specialists repeatedly advised there was no risk for HTHA in the E exchanger,” Modlin said.
The hearing should continue at least through Thursday, and then resume next week and during later dates this fall.
Jaffe is expected to issue a ruling and proposed decision by the end of December.
Tesoro first appealed Labor and Industries’ citations and fines in 2010, and the two sides have been arguing over them for the past five years. Tesoro was cleared of criminal charges in 2014 after a four-year investigation by the Department of Justice.
In prior proceedings, Jaffe vacated all but eight willful violations and three serious violations against Tesoro, but a final order must be decided by the Board of Industrial Insurance Appeals.
Dew said Tuesday he intends to offer evidence on the violations already vacated, but Jaffe said he will only allow testimony on violations he has yet to rule on.
Reporter Evan Marczynski: 360-416-2149, emarczynski@skagitpublishing. com, Twitter: @Evan–SVH, Facebook. com/EvanReports
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