A federal safety board is challenging Tesoro after the oil company barred the agency from investigating a chemical spill at its Martinez refinery earlier this month that injured two employees.
U.S. Chemical Safety Board Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso sent a letter on Wednesday to Tesoro CEO Gregory Goff stating his disappointment that the has blocked a CSB investigation into the Feb. 12 leak.
He said Tesoro’s refusal to cooperate with the investigation calls into question what else the company could be hiding and signals a larger problem of a lax safety culture.
Around 2:40 a.m. on Feb. 12, two workers at the Martinez refinery were splashed with sulfuric acid. They were airlifted to UC Davis Medical Center to be treated for what Moure-Eraso described as first and second-degree chemical burns and released later that day.
Statements from Tesoro representatives, however, have described the burns suffered by the workers as “minor injuries.”
The CSB letter claims that management at the Martinez refinery haven’t allowed agency staff to return to the site after an initial refinery visit following the spill or to conduct interviews as part of a federally mandated investigation.
Tesoro spokeswoman Elizabeth Watters said in an emailed statement today that CSB was allowed access to the refinery “on multiple occasions” despite the company’s “concern about the CSB’s authority to investigate an incident of this type.” The company has also made refinery employees available for interviews, Watters said.
She said the refinery is fully cooperating with Cal/OSHA’s investigation into the leak, “as it is clearly within their jurisdiction to investigate.”
Moure-Eraso also wrote in the letter that refinery management refused to preserve the scene of the spill and have indicated they would not comply with a subpoena to release documents about operations in the refinery’s sulfuric acid alkylation unit where the leak occurred.
He said that the CSB’s investigation so far has shown that on Feb. 12, equipment connected to a 100,000-gallon vessel containing flammable hydrocarbons and concentrated sulfuric acid experienced a “mechanical integrity failure” and released five gallons of acid per minute until workers were able to stop the leak.
Investigators also found that workers at the refinery at the time did not have ready access to required protective face and body gear, leaving them even more vulnerable to injury, according to the letter.
“Acid splashing on worker’s unprotected faces or other parts of the body, resulting in first and second-degree burns requiring air evacuations to a hospital burn unit, treatment and subsequent significant lost time at work, absolutely constitute serious injuries,” he wrote.
In addition, Moure-Eraso wrote, some workers at the refinery told CSB staff that they worry they could lose their jobs if they report safety concerns at the refinery.
He concluded by urging Tesoro to “reverse course, recognize its error and cooperate with the lawfully authorized CSB investigation.”
Watters said Tesoro is in the process of reviewing the letter and is continuing to communicate with the CSB.
The CSB is an independent federal agency tasked with finding the root causes of chemical safety violations that it shares with workers, the industry and the public with the aim of averting future accidents.
The agency doesn’t have regulatory power and cannot fine a company for a safety breach.