Berkeley forms collaborative with labor and community organizations to improve practices in oil refining industry

The $1 million in fines for willful and serious safety violations issued on Jan. 30, 3013, by Cal/OSHA against the Chevron Corporation should be a wake-up call for the Bay Area and the nation, according to a new coalition of labor, community, university, and environmental health groups that has formed following the August 6, 2012 fire at the Chevron refinery in Richmond.

“This was a near-miss that was totally preventable. It was also inevitable, given the way these companies are running the refineries. And it’s probably going to happen again,” says Ron Espinoza, state-wide director for the United Steelworkers union (USW) and a leader of the new coalition. The USW represents most workers in the California refinery industry.

The coalition, which formed under the aegis of the Labor Occupational Health Program at UC Berkeley, consists of the USW, Communities for a Better Environment, the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the BlueGreen Alliance. The group found common ground, according LOHP director Mike Wilson, on the need to engage the industry directly, with every possible tool available, to improve safety and reduce health and environmental damage.

“We know that the refineries can meet much higher standards, because they’re already doing it in other countries,” says Wilson. “They’re even the same companies. We don’t have the right kinds of regulations here, so the refineries put less attention and investment into safety. The coalition believes California should change that.”

According to data gathered by the coalition, the California refinery industry experienced 41 new accidents, leaks, chemical releases, fires, break-downs, and other failures since the August 6, 2012 Richmond fire, or about two each week, releasing toxic substances into the air and in some cases endangering the lives of workers and nearby residents.

The Chevron Corporation recently reported that it paid $10 million in medical-compensation claims submitted by some of the nearly 15,000 people who sought medical attention following the August 6 blaze. According to the coalition, these expenses and fines aren’t nearly enough of a deterrent to the refinery industry.

Greg Karras, senior scientist for Communities for a Better Environment, believes the culture of the industry needs to change so that it places more value on the safety of its workers and neighboring communities. "We need a comprehensive safety culture in this industry, and that’s going to start with action by Chevron to prevent another fire or chemical release before it kills or injures more people,” he says.

Representatives of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board report that accidents in the refinery industry have grown steadily in the United States at the same time they have declined overseas, including in developing countries. Following a massive industrial release of toxic dioxins in Seveso, Italy, in 1976, the European Union instigated new rules that steadily switched the burden of ensuring safety from the government to the managers of hazardous industries, including refineries, who must demonstrate adherence to rigorous health, safety, and environmental standards as a condition of operating their plants. The process is overseen by safety experts who serve as government auditors. This “Safety Case” approach has produced a marked decline in industrial accidents in the EU and other countries where it has been adopted.

The coalition is calling for a similar approach in California, with public access to the information provided by the companies and the actions taken by government auditors. They are also calling for a host of immediate changes, such as a thorough assessment of corrosion damage, better emissions reporting by the industry, and a reduction in the use of “flaring” and other processes that release air contaminants into the community.

“We should think of the near-miss in Richmond as the beginning of real change in this industry,” said Charlotte Brody of the BlueGreen Alliance. “This industry is too important in this state and in the country to be run this way. It needs to be managed more efficiently and with the best safety practices to protect workers and communities. California can and should set a better example for the nation.”

The Labor Occupational Health Program is one of the nation’s preeminent public university outreach programs for advancing community, worker, and environmental health. Housed in the UC Berkeley School of Public Health, LOHP has worked for more than 35 years with community-based organizations, labor unions, businesses, legislators, and government agency leaders to address health inequities in the workplace and in communities. LOHP’s team of educators empowers workers and community members to take leadership roles in effecting change; they are recognized internationally for their effectiveness in building cross-cutting coalitions among the most vulnerable workers and communities. LOHP provides educational programs and technical assistance, conducts participatory research, consults on the development of workplace standards and policies, and facilitates interaction and learning among University researchers, students, and the community.