Refinery blast follows safety violations

ANACORTES - A Washington oil refinery hit by a deadly blast and fire early Friday was recently fined for safety violations amid what federal watchdogs call a troubling trend of serious accidents at refineries.

The blast struck the Tesoro Corp. refinery in Anacortes around 12:30 a.m. Employees were doing maintenance work on a unit that processes highly flammable liquid derived during the refining process, the company said.

The blast shook houses and woke people miles away, shooting flames as high as the refinery’s tower before the blaze was extinguished about 90 minutes later.

“We could tell this was horrific, this was huge,” said Jan Taylor of La Conner, who felt the blast rock her motor home at the RV park across the bay.

Three men died at the scene – Matthew C. Bowen, 31, of Arlington; Darrin J. Hoines, 43, of Ferndale; and Daniel J. Aldridge, 50, of Anacortes, according to the Skagit County coroner. Kathryn Powell, 29, and Donna Van Dreumel, 36, died later at the hospital. Two others were hospitalized with major burns over the majority of their bodies, said Susan Gregg-Hanson, a spokeswoman for Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. The injured are 34-yearold Matt Gumbel and 41-year-old Lew Janz. They remain in critical condition at Harborview.

It was the largest fatal refinery accident since a 2005 explosion at a BP American refinery in Texas killed 15 people and injured another 170.

Six investigators with the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board were dispatched to the scene, and Washington Department of Labor & Industries launched an investigation.

The agency fined the San Antonio-based company $85,700 last April for 17 serious safety and health violations, defined as those with potential to cause death or serious physical injury.

Inspectors found 150 instances of deficiencies and said the company didn’t ensure safe work practices and failed to update safety information when changes were made to equipment.

In November, the state reached a settlement with Tesoro, requiring in part that the company correct the hazards and hire a thirdparty consultant to do a safety audit. The settlement reduced the total penalty to $12,250 and lowered the number of violations to three.

“We don’t know if any of those hazards were involved in the incident that happened today,” said Hector Castro, spokesman for the state labor department. The company was fined $6,000 for two serious violations in 2005 and another $6,000 for two serious violations in 2007, Castro said.

Jeff Haffner, associate general counsel for Tesoro, said the thirdparty audit was completed in the past few weeks, but the consulting firm hired had not yet issued its report.

Most of the items involved requirements for managing safety, he said.

“There’s no way for us to know whether the subject matter of any of those items were related, if at all, to this incident, because we don’t know what caused the incident,” Haffner said.

Company investigators were still trying to determine the exact cause of the blaze, Wright said, and the extent of the damage was unknown. Parts of the refinery continue to operate, he said, and any production loss can likely be made up by ramping up production at Tesolo’s other West Coast refineries or by buying from others.