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Houston Chronicle: Safety plan for refineries brings forth only timidity

April 24, 2007, 11:09PM
Copyright 2007 Houston Chronicle

Sometimes, finding the right words to write is difficult. Inspiration may come with a change of scenery.

In my case, a simple trip to a nearby Starbucks with my laptop often is all I need to get going.

I mention this as a tip to those at the American Petroleum Institute who seem to have writer’s block when it comes to drafting a meaningful policy about the location of temporary trailers in refineries.

Perhaps they should go to the section of the BP refinery in Texas City where 15 people, most of them working in such a trailer, were killed when a nearby unit that was being restarted exploded.

Clear signs

The industrial scarring — twisted and scorched pipes, metal bent like tinfoil, the empty concrete slab where the trailer once rested — testify to the force of the blast more than two years ago. It’s a grim reminder that the victims never had a chance.

Maybe the 35 members of the API committee drafting the new standard should work there, in a temporary trailer, until they can find the words to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

So far, API has developed some preliminary guidelines, but they are woefully inadequate and fail to address the concerns of the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board. They don’t, for example, set a minimum distance for trailers from operating units. The trade organization, which represents some of the country’s biggest refiners, argues such decisions should be left to individual companies’ judgment.

That, of course, is how 15 people in Texas City died in the first place.

In December, API said it was seeking input from its members and that it might get around to publishing a final policy, oh, maybe by the end of June.

How hard can it be?

Needless deaths

Within a matter of days of the March 2005 explosion in Texas City, it became clear that the dead died needlessly. The trailer in which many of them were meeting shouldn’t have been there, and the meeting could have been held anywhere.

BP itself understood this. It began moving trailers outside the refinery perimeter almost immediately. In all, it relocated 200 trailers housing some 800 workers. It purchased land across the street from the refinery to house them and plans a new building that can withstand hurricanes.

Shell Oil, which like BP is an API member, began in 2000 using a computer-based model to assess the risk of trailer locations, a company spokesman told the Chronicle this week.

In the refining world, “outside the fence” has become a new mantra for safety. It means, simply, the fewer people near things that could go “boom,” the better.

Trailers are “rarely necessary in any proximity to explosion hazards,” Manuel Gomez, director of the CSB’s office of recommendations, said in a letter to API President Red Cavaney. “In other words, these structures typically pose unnecessary risks that can often be eliminated relatively easily and inexpensively.”

Doesn’t want to dictate

API is dragging its feet on a meaningful policy because it doesn’t like to dictate procedures to its member companies.

What’s needed, though, is a minimum requirement that, on its face, is so stunningly obvious it boggles the mind that API could spend two years working on the policy and still have nothing meaningful to show for it.

If it needs help, the CSB has spelled out proposed rules in its investigation into the BP explosion. The API could look to the example set by some of its own members.

The guidelines API has so far, which one CSB board member referred to as “open-ended and mushy,” can mask culpability. Common sense can be superseded by boxes that are conveniently checked. Does it meet the guideline? Check.

What’s needed is a policy that protects workers, that reminds companies of their responsibility to keep workers alive and, to the best of their ability, free from harm.

Considering the obvious

It may sound obvious, but API needs to make it clear to its members that flimsy trailers full of people shouldn’t be in harm’s way.

If it can’t find the words, it can find inspiration in the corner of Texas City where the specter of death still hovers over the blast site. Perhaps working in the shadow of tragedy, API could find its voice.

Maybe there, it could summon the common sense to make sure such a calamity doesn’t happen again.

Loren Steffy is the Chronicle’s business columnist. His commentary appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Contact him at [email protected].

His blog is at and its sister websites,,,,, and are all owned by John Donovan. There is also a Wikipedia article.

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