Tesoro’s dispute in Calif. resonates in Vancouver

Agency says company hindered investigation of chemical release at refinery

By Eric Florip, Columbian Transportation & Environment Reporter

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From the start, the proposed oil terminal at the Port of Vancouver generated heated debate over what such a facility would mean for the community.

But in recent weeks, the local conversation has also been shaped by an incident hundreds of miles from Vancouver.

Opponents of the terminal have pointed to a Tesoro Corp.-owned oil refinery in Martinez, Calif., that saw a chemical release burn two workers on Feb. 12. The severity of those burns has been disputed, and the U.S. Chemical Safety Board alleges Tesoro blocked the agency from fully investigating the incident, at one point barring inspectors from entering the facility.

Tesoro is one of the companies behind the proposed oil terminal in Vancouver.

During a recent swing through Vancouver, Tesoro officials adamantly denied hindering the CSB’s investigation — despite a letter from the agency directly contradicting Tesoro’s account of what happened. In it, the CSB’s three members blasted Tesoro for downplaying the seriousness of the workers’ injuries, and for preventing the CSB from performing its federally mandated duties.

Tesoro officials say that’s not true.

“We deeply respect all of our regulators,” Keith Casey, Tesoro’s senior vice president of strategy and business development, told The Columbian last week. “We have fully cooperated with all of our regulators, and we never barred the CSB from that facility.”

Dueling accounts

The dueling claims present very different versions of the same incident at a time when Tesoro’s credibility and safety record are being questioned in Vancouver and elsewhere.

“You either believe Tesoro or you believe this independent group,” said Dan Serres, conservation director for advocacy group Columbia Riverkeeper. “And it’s pretty clear that Tesoro is understating the impact to workers in this incident.”

Tesoro Corp. and Savage Companies want to build an oil terminal capable of handling as much as 380,000 barrels of crude per day. Oil would arrive by rail from North Dakota, then leave by marine vessels on its way to U.S. refineries. The Vancouver terminal would be the largest such facility in the Northwest.

Port of Vancouver commissioners have already approved a lease with the Tesoro-Savage joint venture. But some other local leaders have been skeptical of the plan. A majority of Vancouver City Council members say they oppose the oil terminal.

In announcing his opposition earlier this month, Councilor Jack Burkman directly cited the California incident among his reasons. He noted the apparent disconnect between how Tesoro characterized the incident and how federal regulators described it.

“Actions often speak much louder than words,” Burkman said at a March 17 council meeting. “These actions yell at me.”

Many critics have also cited a 2010 explosion at a Tesoro refinery in Anacortes that killed seven people.

In the California incident, Tesoro described workers’ burns as “minor.” But the CSB letter said the workers suffered first- and second-degree burns after they were “sprayed” by sulfuric acid at the refinery. A CSB representative reportedly later said that 84,000 pounds of acid was released in the incident.

Tesoro doesn’t dispute that number. But almost all of that acid went into a drain designed to catch it in the event of a chemical release, said Brian Sullivan, Tesoro vice president of corporate affairs.

The CSB letter also alleges that the workers were not provided with the proper protective equipment at the time — a claim Tesoro flatly denies.

“That’s just not true,” Sullivan said.

The CSB is an independent federal agency charged with investigating industrial chemical accidents. It does not issue citations or fines, but it does make recommendations.

Sullivan noted that Tesoro works with more regulators than just the CSB at its facilities. The Martinez refinery, for example, also falls under the jurisdiction of local and state regulators, including the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health, he said. Tesoro maintains it has fully cooperated with those agencies, including the CSB.

The CSB’s letter makes it clear that the agency feels otherwise. Sullivan said the company is disappointed that the dispute has played out publicly in the media, rather than directly between the two parties. More than a month after it was sent, the CSB letter remains prominently posted on the agency’s website.

Tesoro executives have said it’s premature to judge the proposal until its review — now in the hands of the state Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council — fully plays out. But Burkman and others so far haven’t been pleased with what they’ve heard.

“The more I have learned about the proposed oil terminal and the related shipment of oil by rail, the more concerned I have become,” Burkman said earlier this month.