Longform

The Fire Next Time?

Page 7 of 8

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."

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Bob Burtman