The Fire Next Time?
Last September 11, a pair of computers in Exxon's Baytown refinery stopped talking to each other for 15 seconds. That brief lapse in communication caused more than 66,000 gallons of naphtha, a highly volatile petroleum distillate, to spew from several damaged pipe connections and form a giant vapor cloud.
A giant vapor cloud of naphtha floating around an oil refinery is not something to take lightly. The material is so explosive that sparks from the distributor of a passing car can set it off -- to say nothing of the open flames that are as common as dirt at a refinery. Employees on the scene acted quickly, shutting down various pipes and bypassing others. The cloud dissipated. It was all over in about 15 minutes.
But for the employees at work in the refinery's Light Oil Treaters unit that day, those 15 minutes were nearly their last. During the naphtha release, according to Exxon's internal report on the incident, several workers tried to drive through the danger zone, despite the frantic efforts of two employees to stop them.
In addition, according to the report, it took "a long time" for the plant's alarm system to start functioning, and a worker almost drove a truck through the naphtha on a road that wasn't wired into the alarm system at all. Luckily, an alert co-worker waved him to a stop.
Battle of the Piney Woods: SFA vs. SHSU
TicketsSat., Oct. 7, 1:00pm
Houston Texans vs. Kansas City Chiefs
TicketsSun., Oct. 8, 7:30pm
TicketsSat., Oct. 21, 7:00pm
Houston Texans vs. Indianapolis Colts
TicketsSun., Nov. 5, 12:00pm
Houston Texans vs. Arizona Cardinals
TicketsSun., Nov. 19, 12:00pm
Meanwhile, an indoor outpost near the leak had filled with vapors. A contract employee entered the building -- in theory, a "safe haven" -- and pulled out a pack of smokes. "Fortunately," the report states matter-of-factly, "an Exxon oil mist technician in the area noticed the contractor and prevented him from lighting his cigarette."
Had the naphtha found an ignition source, says one worker who was at the scene and remembers the incident vividly, the explosion could have leveled the unit and ruptured several nearby acid gas lines containing hydrogen sulfide, which can kill in even small doses. "We would have had a fairly major catastrophe," he says.
A similar leak occurred on October 23, 1989, at the Phillips 66 chemical complex just across the Ship Channel in Pasadena. A contractor doing routine maintenance inadvertently switched a couple of air hoses, opening a valve that, in turn, released a huge cloud of explosive gases. In that incident, the workers weren't so lucky: 90 seconds after the release, a sizable chunk of the plant blew up, killing 23 and injuring more than 130.
That a few strokes of good fortune saved Exxon's refinery workers from a similar fate is enough to shake even the hardest hat in the plant. But the naphtha release has more disturbing implications. The computer communications glitch that led to the release had occurred several times in previous months but hadn't been fixed. During the incident, safety rules were bent or violated. The piping that failed did not meet Exxon's own standards.
Oil refineries and chemical plants are inherently dangerous places to work. Hundreds of miles of pipe carry various toxic and explosive liquids and gases under intense heat and pressure, powered by banks of pumps and fired in huge reactors. Valves fail. Pumps break. Pipes corrode. Shit happens.
To minimize the risk, petrochemical plants are supposed to have an exhaustive safety infrastructure. Employees must be rigorously trained. Backup equipment is ready when something fails. Procedures have checks and balances. Equipment gets regular maintenance, and inspectors catch potential problems before they erupt. Incidents are investigated and action taken to avoid repeats.
But at the Exxon refinery and adjacent chemical plant, part of the company's sprawling Baytown complex that dominates the working-class city 30 miles east of Houston, the safety net is full of holes. Though the company says the plants are among the safest in the business, a Houston Press investigation has revealed a grimmer picture: routine maintenance deferred until equipment breaks, serious breaches of safety rules to cut corners, the use of unqualified workers to do sensitive and dangerous tasks, shoddy or partial repairs.
In fact, as the company has steadily slashed its work force and maintenance budget the past decade, incidents such as the October naphtha release are becoming almost routine. On November 15, 1995, a pipe elbow in the Lube Hydrofining Unit-1 burst, sending a wall of orange flame 90 feet into the air and destroying part of a nearby building. On January 8, a pipe that was seven years overdue for replacement failed and leaked propane into the atmosphere. Ten days later, a propylene line in the chemical plant blew up after Exxon workers misunderstood a crew of Spanish-speaking contractors and pressurized it before repairs had been completed.
And over a three-day period last month, four potentially serious incidents occurred. On March 6, a sewer explosion in the refinery's alkylation plant sent manhole covers flying. On March 7, a one-inch pipe under 600 pounds of pressure in the chemical plant blew, forcing another evacuation to a "safe haven" and sending a cloud of propylene wafting over the Wooster community, a low-income neighborhood tucked between Exxon and the Houston Ship Channel. That same day, an electrical fire occurred in a refinery building where hazardous materials are stored. The following day brought the release of highly toxic toluene in the chemical plant after contractors used a protective plastic valve cover as a gasket.
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.
That sanguine view is not shared by the workers, any of whom can relate horror stories of untrained or careless contractors botching even the simplest jobs. For instance, Kenny Kohlmeyer, a process technician who works in the Light Ends Unit, says that contractors have made so many mistakes blocking the wrong side of valves, a crucial and potentially lethal error, that his crew now hangs pink "idiot tags" in the correct spot to point the way.
Embry said that worker complaints about contractors, as with other perceived safety problems, need to be taken with a grain of salt. These are tough times in a competitive industry, he noted, and with downsizing and outsourcing the rule, workers are naturally nervous about layoffs and pay or benefit reductions. Refinery workers are generally well-paid (union members make up to $21.29 per hour), he noted, and "about the only way a refinery employee E can get much public sympathy is to relate [money] issues to things like safety, rather than the root issue, which is job security, income and those kinds of things."
But concerns about contractors extend well beyond the dwindling ranks of plant workers. In a report commissioned after the Phillips disaster, the U.S. Department of Labor cited a laundry list of concerns about the increased use of contract labor. Contractors have less management oversight, less knowledge of workplace hazards, higher injury rates and less safety training than plant employees. "OSHA has been concerned for some time about the diffusion of responsibility for worker safety and health when employers contract out work," the report said.
Recently, the union safety committee brought two major contractor violations to Exxon's attention. In the first, the Austin Company was regularly using an unlicensed tugboat operator to pilot a crane-loaded barge around the dock area, where oil barges load and unload their cargo. "The preponderance of data suggests that a license is required," admitted refinery supervisor Bob Blundell, who ordered the contractor off the job until the license was procured.
The committee's other complaint involved Inspectorate America Corporation, whose workers flouted numerous federal regulations in handling product samples. Among the infractions: untrained drivers were hauling improperly packaged hazardous waste without valid papers. The contractor was temporarily suspended.
Neither situation resulted in a spill, release or other serious incident. But Sharon Groth, the attorney and business agent for the Gulf Coast Industrial Workers Union (GCIWU), the largest at the refinery and chemical plant, says the two offenses beg the oversight question: "How do we find out about it, and [management] doesn't know?"
Not all contractors' errors have been forestalled without incident, however. On October 13, 1993, a 150-yard-long cloud of ethane ethylene escaped from a pipe in the refinery's Catalytic Light Ends Unit. Technician Jimmy Baker happened to notice the cloud, waded through the hydrocarbon fog and shut off the controlling valve. The vapor cloud dispersed.
According to Exxon's "Near Miss Report," the release was due to "improper installation of an incorrectly specified and defective gasket." Translation: instead of using the special, manufactured O-ring flange gasket required for a particular maintenance job, a contractor had simply hand-carved a gasket with a knife and stuck it in.
Replacing plant personnel with contractors is only one way Exxon has been compromising refinery and chemical plant safety. The time between regularly scheduled turnarounds has been stretched from 12 or 18 months to two or three years, depending on the unit. The longer units go between turnarounds, the more likely equipment will break down. At the same time, the number of days allotted for turnarounds has been radically compressed.
The last time the refinery's No. 2 Catalytic Cracking Unit was overhauled, for example, it took more than three months to complete the project. The same unit is heading for another turnaround, but this time only 35 days have been allotted before the oil starts flowing again. Exxon is doing some of the work in advance while the unit is running, but Kenny Kohlmeyer disputes the company claim that this turnaround will be as thorough as the last. "There's no way in hell they can do that," he says, almost with amusement. "A cat unit turnaround is a tricky thing."
While admitting that the company is bringing units down for shorter periods and running them longer between turnarounds, refinery spokesman Ron Embry attaches the usual disclaimer. "We want to do that, and we plan to do that, in a way that does not compromise safety."
But Kohlmeyer scoffs at that notion, echoing numerous workers who report finding partial repairs and other dubious evidence upon returning to overhauled units. "The only way you shorten turnarounds," he says, "is by nixing work items."
If pipe inspection and replacement or other jobs slated for a turnaround are not carried out, it can come back to haunt. The hydrofining unit that caught fire last November when a pipe elbow failed had recently undergone a turnaround. As the incident report noted, the pipe was inspected for corrosion during the shutdown, but "the elbow which failed was not one of the monitored locations." A similar elbow on a sister unit was found to be as thin as a Coke can. "That elbow should have been caught," says a worker who was on duty nearby the night of the explosion. When he opened the door of his building, he says, "Everything was orange."
Spot maintenance at the plants can be as wanting as the regularly scheduled variety. In April 1995, shortly after a batch of mechanics were sent permanently packing, the refinery instituted a new maintenance program, REMIT. The idea made sense: repair work would be evaluated and prioritized based on need. The more potentially serious the problem, the higher the priority. The maximum time limit for repair of the highest priority items was set at 30 days.
It wasn't long before REMIT was remitted. Because the mechanical force had been whittled to the bone, the deadline expired on top-priority repairs without any action. Though no official change has been made to the REMIT manual, Kenny Kohlmeyer says he was recently told by a supervisor that the standard has doubled to 60 days. And several workers report that repairs on the lower priority rungs, ever displaced by a backlog of more important items, wait indefinitely in limbo.
Exxon is shaving other maintenance costs as well. The company won't share budget figures, but the number of in-house inspectors, who test pipe thickness and generally catch trouble before it happens, has shrunk over the past few years. And though contractors may have been hired to fill the void, the results aren't inspiring confidence.
The question of what and when to inspect can be incredibly complex, involving computer models and reams of data. But Jan Miller has a simple assessment of the refinery's inspections program. Miller, a 15-year employee who works in the Light Ends units, recalls that when he started, inspectors regularly looked for -- and replaced -- thinning pipe. "Now," Miller says, "we just wait for the leaks."
When a 30-inch vapor line in Pipestill 7 blew a hole on New Year's Day, releasing hydrocarbons and hydrogen sulfide gas into the atmosphere, employees in the unit weren't exactly shocked. The same line had leaked the previous August, and was riddled with clamps and wrappers (an outer layer of steel that wraps around leaks or thin sections of pipe for reinforcement) from previous breaks.
More troubling was that after the August incident, the company had promised to conduct inspections of that and other "overhead" lines in the unit. "The Inspection Plan takes up where the current [plan] left off," says the incident report, "and is designed to ensure safe operation until the 1998 turnaround."
When it comes to safety issues, Tim Webster prefers to err on the side of caution. A 17-year Exxon employee, Webster is a broad-shouldered man, with steel-blue eyes offset by a Roman nose and lantern jaw. He also has another distinguishing feature -- a blotchy swath of scar on the back of his neck and right wrist.
In February 1981, Webster and two other workers were working about 50 feet off the ground at Pipestill 7, checking for leaks. They found one. An open valve that should have been locked shut allowed a sudden spray of refined crude to blow from a vent, soaking the three. Before they could escape, the spray found a light, flashed and transformed them into torches. By the time they made it down from the rack, they'd suffered second- and third-degree burns over half their bodies. "We were lucky to live through that," Webster recalls evenly. "Very lucky."
The fire kept Webster in the hospital for five weeks and out of work for a year. When he returned to the plant, he had a new perspective on safety in the workplace. "I tend to look more now at serious safety issues," he says with a calmness more powerful than a scream. "I don't want anyone else to end up like I did."
Along with his co-workers, Webster grew increasingly distressed at what he saw as a sea change in Exxon's priorities. Even as the company cut jobs, supervisors pushed for greater "efficiency," urging the workers to produce more with less. From a safety standpoint, the result was inevitable. "We kept hearing more talk from employees who had safety concerns that weren't getting attention," Webster says. "We're talking serious safety concerns."
The refinery and chemical plant have a veritable web of official safety channels, some required by law. Each has a health and safety department to oversee programs. Investigation teams analyze incidents deemed worthy of investigating and produce reports complete with "action steps" to avoid a reoccurrence. Another team audits safety permits for the most dangerous work to ensure they're done properly. Every unit in the refinery has its own company-sanctioned safety committee that meets regularly and addresses issues as they arise.
But lately, the official channels haven't been working very well. A number of the unit safety committees, for instance, have become so ineffectual that workers stopped participating. "We didn't even have one for the longest time, because everybody thought it was such a joke," says Kenny Kohlmeyer.
The hang-up, according to the workers, comes from the top. Though the various safety committees and teams include both management and labor, the bosses get to choose who's on them. And the representatives they've been choosing are the least likely to point out hazards or otherwise impede the process. "They don't take people who will ask questions," says Kohlmeyer, who works in the Light Ends units. "They're company lackeys. They don't have any respect from the rank and file in the field."
The issue came to a head last May, when the company asked Bart Albright, president of the GCIWU, to remove member Dewey Hughes from the permit audit team. Hughes, one of two union appointees on the four-man committee, had aggressively questioned violations of the permit rules. Albright refused. In January, claiming Hughes was needed to work a turnaround in Fuels North, the company yanked him from the team anyway. The union withdrew in protest, leaving the team with worker reps hand-picked by management.
Refinery spokesman Ron Embry admitted that management selects safety personnel, but said it's not especially relevant. "Let me just say that we continue to work with our employees and the unions on these kinds of issues," he said, "and I think it has been an effective kind of partnership that we've developed."
Not effective enough, apparently. The grumbles from the work force having reached a dull roar, members of the GCIWU, as well as the machinists, electrical and clerical workers unions decided to act. They met in August at the GCIWU hall and crafted an unprecedented plan -- to form a joint union health and safety committee outside the official company structure. The meticulous, even-keeled Tim Webster was elected chair.
The purpose of the committee, its members agreed, was to serve as a confidential, last-resort option for workers who had voiced concerns through official channels but had been rebuffed. The committee would discuss each complaint and investigate its merits, then try to resolve the matter internally. If all else failed, OSHA would get a call.
At first, the company ignored the committee's letters and requests for information. A couple of OSHA investigations later, however, management perked up, though it has yet to officially acknowledge the committee's existence, responding instead through the union presidents. OSHA is currently investigating major safety violations at Pipestill 7 and should issue a ruling soon.
According to several plant sources, the company is none too pleased with the new group. At least one plant manager refers to the group as a "rogue committee," and several have complained of frivolous safety claims and a desire to damage the company's reputation. But committee members, who carefully document every move, politely disagree. "We're not on a witch-hunt," says Webster. "I don't want to put anything out there that's not factual, that we can't stand behind."
The workers have been more enthusiastic. As word of the committee has spread, a stack of employee safety concerns has flooded the union hall. "It's ended up where we've got more than we can handle," says Webster.
The committee's efforts seem to be bearing fruit. Repairs that had lagged were finally made after committee intervention. When workers reported that a contractor was operating a tugboat without a license, the committee passed along the concern and the contractor was suspended. And when another tip exposed unsafe contractor practices with the collection, storage and transport of hazardous tank samples, a safety committee discussion with management yielded the same result.
Managers have repeatedly said that any repairs or other correctives sought by the committee were part of the plan, that they would have been done anyway. "Whatever they want to say, that's fine with me, as long as the problems get addressed," Webster says without a trace of irritation. "All we're asking is a resolution to the concern."
1995 was a good year for Exxon Corporation. In February, the company announced record profits of $6.5 billion, up 27 percent over the previous year. In addition to increased sales, according to the company's annual report, the good news was largely due to "operating efficiencies," especially on the job front. Total employment worldwide at Exxon has dropped from 101,000 in 1991 to 82,000 in 1995, contributing heavily to a savings of $1.4 billion in operating costs during the same period.
The search for such savings will continue. "We are confident that further efficiencies will be achieved as all parts of the company continue their efforts to be the most efficient competitor," the company reported.
Not three weeks after trumpeting its fiscal success, Exxon announced 350 new job cuts on the production side, some in Houston.
The tidings went down quite well with Exxon's board of directors, who have rewarded the corporation's top executives with mammoth raises based partly on keeping stock prices and dividends high. Chairman and CEO Lee Raymond, for example, received almost $4.4 million in cash and benefits in 1995, up 53 percent in two years. Raymond will surely be rewarded for last year's stellar performance, because his pay is tied directly to corporate profits. As a March proxy statement notes, Exxon's executive pay program "is E designed to make a substantial component of senior executives' potential compensation dependent upon increased shareholder return."
Missing from this loop, of course, is Exxon's labor force. And at the Baytown refinery, an aging facility built in 1919 that the company says lost $36 million last year, the constant pressure from above to cut costs and improve the bottom line has put the squeeze on safety spending, despite management's claim to the contrary. "From the time you come out here, you're indoctrinated with safety first -- safety, safety, safety," says Don Brent, who just retired after 15 years as a refinery technician. "But it's safety until it's gonna cost 'em money."
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."
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.
Refinery and chemical plant management have done little to dissuade the workers from their fears. Since the 1994 contract negotiations with GCIWU, Exxon has been playing tough with the union, especially on safety issues. And against an independent union with no national organization to back it, huge multinational Exxon holds most of the cards: during the negotiations, the union offered a number of suggestions to improve health and safety, but all were summarily rejected. "The company wouldn't listen," says GCIWU business agent and attorney Sharon Groth. "They wouldn't even let us put 'em on the table."
The proposals included a joint safety committee modeled after a similar group at the Shell plant in Deer Park that had proven a success. According to Groth, refinery human resources division manager Dave Clements responded with one of his favorite phrases: "We have no energy around that."
Exxon's hardball tactics didn't stop after the two sides reached agreement. Though the GCIWU contract includes a provision for binding arbitration of grievances, for example, the company has simply refused to abide by four decisions that went against it. Groth sees a pattern, "a very punitive, and in some cases vindictive approach in dealing with employee-relations issues."
Though management has grudgingly moved on several of the safety committee's concerns, all signs point to another fight. After the unions rejected a company attempt to co-opt the committee, several higher-ups began badmouthing the group as anti-Exxon.
The company's latest tack is divide and conquer. At least three of the four union heads were recently called onto the carpet about the new safety committee. Tim Urban of the machinists union says refinery human resources section supervisor Jack McCarthy told him it would be better for his membership if he dissociated himself from the group. Urban declined.
Sources at the plant, however, say that Marvin Boozer of the electrical workers is more sympathetic to the management view and may urge his membership to pull out. Boozer denies it, though he says the nature of his discussions on the subject is for union ears only.
Regardless of the strategy, it seems unlikely the company will offer the union safety committee a seat at the table anytime soon. The committee has extended invitations to meet with plant manager Sherri Stuewer to discuss the issues, but she has yet to respond.
The skirmishes over the safety committee could escalate when the union contract expires next year. The Crown Central Petroleum refinery in Pasadena, where workers have been locked out since February in a bitter contract dispute, may offer a glimpse of the future: talks have broken off since Crown claimed that workers sabotaged plant equipment, a charge the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union at Crown calls absurd.
OCAW regional director Joe Christie says the issues Exxon workers are confronting mirror those at refineries around the country. All are downsizing, cutting back on maintenance costs and otherwise skimping on safety. Nor are the horror stories confined to the Baytown plants. "There have been near misses in these [other] refineries," Christie says. "If the public only knew ...."
But the public doesn't know. And if current efforts in Congress succeed in gutting OSHA's enforcement abilities, the last line of defense for groups such as the union safety committee, Exxon and others may be free to operate as they please -- until a near miss turns into another Phillips disaster.
Why Exxon doesn't take every precaution to avoid such a fate makes no sense to Tim Webster, especially in view of the company's frequent assertion that worker safety is its number one priority. "Maybe we don't understand all of management's frustrations," Webster says. "It seems like when we bring [safety concerns] over to 'em, they should be appreciative.
"I don't know what's going on in their heads.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Houston, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.