by the spirit of Tony Mazzocchi

The Washington Department of Labor and Industries, Division of Occupational Safety & Health (DOSH) inspected the Tesoro Anacortes refinery in 2008 and found major safety problems.  In a settlement agreement, however, the agency “deleted” 14 of 17 serious citations and lowered the penalty from $85,700 to $12,250.   A massive explosion rocked the refinery on April 2nd, killing five workers and critically injured two others.  The serious citations should have served as a warning of systemic problems at the refinery, but Tesoro and Washington State DOSH apparently did not take needed actions to prevent the catastrophic incident last week. 

The agency has a history of negotiating away citations in refinery disasters.  In 1998, a fire at the nearby Equilon refinery killed six.  The agency dropped willful violations and issued two “unclassified” citations.  The settlement was reported to have been proposed by the Equilon’s lawyers, McDermott, Will and Emery.   This situation should compel us to ask:

  • Do settlement agreements that drop or reduce citations benefit worker safety in the long run?  Or
  • Do they serve to reduce legal liability for corporations while allowing OSHA to more easily close-out inspections? 

In 1999, The Seattle Times’ Jim Brunner wrote about these exact issues in “$4.4 Million Settlement In Fatal Blast, But Some Think Equilon Got Off Easy,” following up on the November 1998 explosion that killed six men at the Echelon Enterprises’ Anacortes refinery. 

The settlement between Equilon Enterprises and the state Department of Labor and Industries (L&I) was praised by L&I and union officials, but left some of the victims’ families wondering if the company got off easy.  “My gut feeling is that Equilon got what they wanted,” said Mike Cade, who worked a 12-hour shift at the refinery’s delayed-coking unit the day before his brother, Ted, was killed in the Nov. 25 explosion and fire.”

The agreement calls for safety improvements at the refinery while allowing the company to avoid being cited as a “willful” violator of safety regulations.  “For them to be able to get away without there being a statement of guilt doesn’t sit right with me,” said Cade, who recently went back to work at the coker as a worker-safety trainer. Cade did say, however, that he was happy with requirements for safety improvements.

The major pieces of the agreement included a $1.1 million fine to be paid to the state for worker-safety violations; a $1 million donation to a Fallen Worker Scholarship Fund, established on behalf of Equilon employees’ families; and a $1 million contribution for the creation of a Workplace Safety and Health Institute at a state educational institution.  

…Under the settlement, Equilon, a joint operation of Shell and Texaco, also agreed to pay at least $350,000 for an independent, refinerywide safety audit, and to give the city of Anacortes $350,000 to buy a new fire engine.
L&I Director Gary Moore said the settlement, under which Equilon agreed not to appeal any of the fines or payments, was an innovative way to improve safety at the refinery and avoid a lengthy legal battle.

…”That was our preference,” McKinney [Echelon spokesman] said. He said the language surrounding willful violations would have implied negligence on the part of the company that “was not appropriate based on the facts of the accident.”

…The workers union was generally pleased with the settlement, which also will pay for a full-time union employee to oversee safety procedures at the refinery, said Tom Lind, international representative for the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers International Union, 8-591.  But David Beninger, the attorney for the families of the men killed in the accident, said the settlement wouldn’t have been necessary had state law allowed L&I more authority to punish corporations for worker-safety violations. “Frankly, I think most people were a little shocked at the limited authority our state has to punish a corporation that kills six workers,” Beninger said.

Jim Brunner’s 1999 article offers the awful details of the 1998 blast. 

Along with Washington State DOSH, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board is investigating the April 2 catastrophe at the Tesoro Anacortes refinery.

Tony Mazzocchi (1925-2002) was a progressive labor leaders who inspired thousands of workers, labor advocates and public health practitioners to devote their talent and energy to worker health and safety.  He was instrumental in securing passage of the OSH Act of 1970 and working after its passage to force the Department of Labor to use fully the authority granted it by Congress.  His spirit lives on in many, including the individual who wrote this post.