The Fire Next Time?

Downsizing, outsourcing, deferred maintenance ... It all makes for a volatile mix at Baytown's Exxon refinery.

After initially agreeing to meet with the Press to discuss safety and maintenance issues, refinery spokesman Ron Embry backed out after discussing the request with upper management. He did manage to say that the company is firmly committed to safety, and that workers play an important role in safety efforts.

And though incidents still occur, Exxon's safety record has improved steadily over the years, Embry said, noting that the refinery has won awards for its safety programs. "Does that mean that we're pleased that we had an incident last week or sometime?" he asked rhetorically. "Not at all. But over a long term, the number of our incidents has continued to decline."

Embry would not back that contention with hard numbers. But a review of company documents obtained by the Press raises serious questions about his claim. And workers represented by the four unions at the refinery and chemical plant are so alarmed about conditions that last August they formed a joint safety committee outside the official company structure. The committee has been pressuring Exxon to follow its own safety rules and minimize the risk of another Phillips.

"We keep seeing so much luck," says committee chair Tim Webster. "Eventually, it's gonna run out."

Brenda King is third-generation Exxon. Her grandfather worked on the pipeline for the old Humble Oil and Refining Company, and her father spent 41 years as a technician in the Baytown refinery. A rugged woman whose gray Exxon coveralls seem tailor-made, King went to work at the plant 17 years ago after a stint as a cable splicer with Southwestern Bell. "I'm an outdoors person," she says of her enthusiasm for refinery work. "I'm not a secretary. I'm not a Little-Miss-Suzy-Homemaker type."

A mechanical craftswoman who repairs and maintains pumps, boilers and other items in the refinery's boggling array of equipment, King worked construction and "turnarounds" -- regularly scheduled overhauls of entire units -- before moving to the maintenance side. She's familiar with many of the more than 400 products the refinery produces from raw crude and has seen most of the refinery's 65 processing units, scattered over 2,200 acres.

In some respects, King agrees with Exxon's assessment that plant safety has improved over the years. That's partly because safety practices, especially those involving exposure to dangerous chemicals, were practically nonexistent when she arrived. Workers would wash their tools in benzene or other carcinogens without gloves or respirators. When tanks were being cleaned, the volumes of waste solvents and fuels were allowed to run uncontained out of the tank openings. "That was general practice in those days," King recalls. "Everything just went on the ground."

In addition, the original underground piping system had proven environmentally unsound, as leaks were difficult to detect and fix. As a result, the plant grounds are saturated with "every chemical you can think of," according to King.

When workers dig below the surface, they often tap unidentified chemical pools that refill faster than they can be bailed out. A lighthearted 1964 article in the Baytown Sun described a series of these holes, dubbed "Como's Gushers" after electrical worker Sam Como, who discovered a vast stratum of green ooze while doing maintenance work. Some of the deposits are so large that Exxon pumps them out by the barrel and recycles the material.

King has struck oil a number of times herself, but her experience hasn't been the stuff of a light newspaper feature. In 1991, she dug a hole to repair a fire monitor, a glorified cross between an extinguisher and a hydrant, and worked in a pool of liquid that seeped from the soil. A regularly scheduled benzene test a couple of weeks later revealed that King had been exposed to a heavy dose of the carcinogen.

Another time, King and a co-worker suffered aches, depression and other symptoms for weeks after repairing a flange. Testing later revealed the hole in which they'd been working to have once been a lead pit. The company never officially admitted she'd been exposed, but the area was roped off for several months. Now, workers in that area have to wear respirators and take other precautions to avoid exposure.

Today, a host of detailed regulations, many of them imposed by federal mandate, govern almost every action in the plant. Virtually every ounce of crude must be accounted for. Wastes must be captured and properly disposed of. Risky maintenance procedures must be done under "breathing air," a self-contained scuba-like apparatus.

But a number of changes that affect plant safety and maintenance have offset those procedural gains, enough to have inspired Brenda King to join the joint union safety committee. She shares committee chair Tim Webster's apocalyptic vision of the future. "We're headin' for the big one," says King.

In the mid-1970s, according to union data, the mechanical work force in the refinery totaled more than 750. By 1986, amid an industry-wide cost-cutting frenzy, Exxon had cut that number by almost two-thirds. A recent wave of reductions has left only about 130 employees to repair and maintain the acres of machinery.

In their place, Exxon hires temporary contractors, a policy known as "outsourcing" in 1990s corporate-speak. Companies such as mammoth engineering firm Brown & Root provide hundreds of workers to do turnarounds and other tasks once done in-house. This saves Exxon millions in labor costs, but the company insists that safety is never compromised as a result. "Our contractor safety, which we steward very carefully and very thoroughly, in many instances is at least as good, and frankly sometimes embarrassingly better than our Exxon safety," said refinery spokesman Ron Embry before he was gagged by his superiors.

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