Days of Living Dangerously

Exxon is fond of declaring its commitment to safety, even when such declarations fly in the face of the facts. After a November 20, 1994 Houston Chronicle article described several safety problems at the Baytown refinery, Exxon Corporation senior vice president Harry Longwell wrote the presidents of the four plant unions that Exxon would continue its long-standing commitment to safety. "As I have stated many times," Longwell wrote, "we will not operate an unsafe or unreliable piece of equipment or facility."

More recently, the January 19 edition of the refinery newsletter included a full-page pep talk proclaiming that anything less than a 100 percent effort to ensure the highest safety standards was unacceptable. "99.9 percent IS NOT GOOD ENOUGH," blared a headline.

But those avowals ring hollow when weighed against the stack of incident reports the company has had to churn out lately after serious fires, spills or near misses at the refinery. Though some of the events were unavoidable, many related directly to safety lapses, including shoddy contractor work, lack of inspection or oversight and an unwillingness to fix equipment in need of repair or maintenance.

Below are a few of the more dramatic occurrences of the past six months:
* On November 2, a muffler weighing more than 300 pounds blew off a pipe in the hydrofining unit and landed within five feet of a pipe rack 20 feet away. "It looked like a rocket taking off," says one witness. The pipe rack included more than 50 live lines carrying such highly flammable and toxic substances as hydrogen, sulfuric acid, propane and hydrogen sulfide. The official investigation report says that the corrosion problem that led to the incident "had been noted by the inspection section and process technicians and communicated verbally to process and technical representatives late in 1994. A recommendation was made in November of 1994 to replace the 20-year-old silencer. Due to the infrequency of use E the item was noted as a low priority and had not been repaired at the time of the incident."

* On November 7, a computer malfunction in the Plant Girbotol Unit led to a five-hour release of acid gas, including hydrogen sulfide, "resulting in odor complaints from the community," according to the Exxon investigation report on the incident. During the release, as the report notes, "Diverting acid gas to the flare [to burn it off] and activating the emergency warning system [EWS] were discussed. Neither were activated E but it was recognized that no clear procedures exist for E activating the EWS for Acid Gas System upsets." In other words, no one is sure when the public should be alerted if a huge cloud of toxic gas floats into Baytown.

* On November 15, a pipe elbow in Lube Hydrofining Unit No. 1 burst, causing a huge fire that destroyed an unoccupied trailer. The fire burned for two hours. Efforts to combat the blaze were hampered when workers in the control center had trouble getting out of their building. According to the incident report, "Operations personnel indicated that there had been problems with the door operating system prior to the incident." In addition, plastic winterization caps on the fire monitors were frozen in place, forcing workers to bang them loose with wrenches.

* On January 8, propane was released from a failed pipe at Pump Slab 170. After similar failures 12 years earlier, inspectors had recommended changing the pipe standard to preclude a recurrence. "In 1984, a five-year program was implemented ... to upgrade all small piping to these new standards," reads the company incident report. "Approximately 90 percent of Pump Slab 170 has been upgraded to the new standards." The blown pipe was among the remaining 10 percent.

* On January 15, another fire erupted at Lube Hydrofining Unit No. 1, this time after heavy vibration caused pump bearings to fail. The pump had been repaired twice previously for the same reason, and a parallel pump had given way three times in the past four years. In 1988, technical staff had recommended either replacing the pumps or changing the operation so the pumps wouldn't vibrate. "These recommendations were not implemented because they could not be justified [financially]," says the incident report. Under "recommendations for follow-up," the report suggests: "Evaluate feasibility of modifying or replace existing pumps to reduce the high vibration."

* On January 16, two pumps burned because of seal failure at Pipestill 8. According to the incident report, "The obsolete design of the mechanical seals used in these pumps made them much more susceptible to catastrophic failure." -- Bob Burtman


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