The Fire Next Time?

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

In between touting the refinery's stellar safety record and denying that safety has been compromised at the plant in recent years, spokesman Ron Embry allowed that the budget was a bit tight these days. "Is there competitive pressure to do our maintenance more efficiently?" he asked. "Absolutely."

Refinery manager Sherri Stuewer refused a request by the unions to provide maintenance expense figures, but they probably reflect another item in the Exxon annual report. Discussing the company's refinery operations, the report noted that low prices for refined products were offset in part by "lower refinery maintenance expense in 1995."

Perhaps most telling is a July 18, 1994 memo penned by Dean Huffman, a plant supervisor, and obtained by the Press. Lamenting the refinery's losses, Huffman wrote, "The result is that we are going to have to make some fairly painful decisions to defer work, and not work things on overtime .... Unfortunately, the level of expenditure we will see rest of year will likely be where we will be next year as well."

"In order to stay in business," Huffman continued, "we need to work smarter, more efficiently and accept a little more risk of equipment shutdown."

That's easy for some people to say. Though the plant workers aren't inclined to accept the increased risk of "equipment shutdown," the same can't be said for the refinery's managers and supervisors, most of whom toil in the plant's drab, blocky office building across the street, known as the White House. "The folks who are making the decisions," says former GCIWU president Ken Evans, a 21-year refinery employee, "are not the folks who have to live with those decisions -- or die with them."

And those folks, say workers in the field, are increasingly clueless about the reality of running a refinery. Lowest on the totem pole are the first-line supervisors, who make few decisions and are essentially the management equivalent of grunt labor. The real link between the plant and the White House are the second-line supervisors, known as BEOs (Basic Equipment Owners), who split their time between the plant and office and oversee individual units.

In the old days, BEOs came up through the ranks and had a working knowledge of day-to-day operations. Now, many of them are hired fresh out of engineering school, and their only exposure to refineries has been on a computer screen. Lloyd Campbell, a refinery technician for 21 years, recalls shepherding a rookie BEO around the plant not long ago. Her lack of knowledge of even the most basic equipment appalled him. "When she saw a fire monitor," Campbell says, "she asked, 'What's that?' "

The BEOs, like other higher-ups at the complex, are looking to do their time and move up the corporate ladder. If they keep costs down and behave properly, they can expect a transfer in a year and a half, two tops, maybe to a cushier job in Houston or Dallas. Consequently, remaining under budget has replaced safety as their top priority. "They want to get in the fast lane, and they'll do whatever it takes to stay in the fast lane," says recently retired worker Don Brent.

So when repairs and maintenance become a choice between halting production for safety reasons or keeping the oil (and money) flowing, it's no wonder that potentially serious leaks get a Band-Aid fix or jets of water are trained on overheated pipes to keep them from melting down. "There's pressure all over to keep the units up," says Brent. "Nobody wants to go out on a limb and say, 'We've got to shut this unit down."

Last November 20, a problem vapor line in the alkylation units that had been repaired numerous times (but never replaced) sprang yet another leak of acid-impregnated butane spray. (The lines on the pipe rack had so many clamps that workers had to shore up the rack with stanchions to prevent collapse.) To temporarily staunch the flow until the leak could be clamped, an employee banged a piece of a wooden broom handle into the hole.

In his daily report, supervisor Gail Varner asked his successors to "please monitor the wooden staub each shift." Two days later, wrote Varner, the problem was "getting complicated." After outlining a series of steps to take, Varner continued: "If all this don't work, we will modify plans as events unravel (fall apart) .... If the temporary repair begins to leak again, call me/Rosa/Dean and get out your hymnals."

Longtime refinery and chemical plant workers fondly recall a different Exxon, the days of benevolent paternalism when Baytown was practically a company town and employees bled tiger red and blue. Back then, if you were loyal to Exxon, Exxon returned the favor.

Those days are gone. "What I've seen," says Lloyd Campbell, who has 21 years with Exxon under his belt, "is the company go from one that seemed to be a cohesive family to one that is only answerable to stockholders."

Many employees have noticed the change. Morale, according to Ken Evans, another 21-year veteran, is "as low as I've ever seen it." Job security doesn't exist. Trust that workers' concerns will be taken seriously has evaporated. "It's like a siege mentality out there," Evans says.

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