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Murray Demands End to Oil and Gas Company Practices That Put Profits Above Worker Safety

Jun 10 2010

Murray chairs Senate hearing on process safety failures that led to the BP Deepwater Horizon explosion, the Tesoro refinery accident in Washington state, and the BP Texas City refinery in 2005—as well as proposed safety procedures and regulations that could help prevent future disasters

(Washington, D.C.) – Today, U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) chaired a hearing of the Senate Employment and Workplace Safety Subcommittee to investigate the failure of oil and gas companies to learn from previous tragedies and implement effective worker safety processes. Murray questioned witnesses on the lessons learned from past accidents, as well as what changes need to be made to better protect workers in the oil and gas industry. This hearing comes on the same day that President Obama is meeting with families of workers killed on the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster.  The hearing also comes on the 11 year anniversary of the Bellingham pipeline explosion in Washington state, and Senator Murray discussed the lessons learned from this tragedy and their relevance to worker safety today.

Senator Murray invited BP executives to testify about the pattern of safety violations that led to the Deepwater Horizon accident that killed 11 workers, but they refused to send a representative.

“Like so many Americans, I am horrified and outraged at the continued devastation in the Gulf Coast,” Senator Murray said at the hearing today. “I want to make sure we don’t forget about the oil and gas industry workers who deserve to be protected…These workers and their families deserve to understand what went wrong.  And every single worker deserves to feel confident that while they are working hard and doing their jobs, their employers are doing everything possible to keep them safe.”

Murray also commented on BP’s absence at the hearing, saying “I want to mention a witness who should be here today but is not. I invited representatives from BP to be here to help us understand what has been going wrong at their company that has led to so many accidents, and what lessons they have learned from the disasters at their company—but they refused to be here.  And honestly, I find it outrageous that even after an accident that killed 11 workers, BP is still not putting a high enough priority on worker safety to send a representative to a hearing specifically focused on protecting workers in their industry. I want to be clear—I am not going to stop working to get answers from BP—but I am extremely disappointed that they would not be here today.”

Witnesses testifying at the hearing were:

Jordan Barab, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health, Washington, DC

Kim Nibarger, Health and Safety Specialist, United Steelworkers, Pittsburgh, PA

Randall Sawyer, Director, Hazardous Materials Programs, Contra Costa County, Martinez, CA

Charles Drevna, President, National Petrochemical & Refiners Association, Washington, DC

Full testimony from all witnesses available upon request.

Kim Nibarger discussed his personal experiences with the Tesoro refinery accident in Anacortes, Washington that killed 7 workers in April, 2010.

“I had just arrived at my parent’s home in Anacortes, Washington in the early morning of April 2nd this year when I heard an explosion and knew immediately that something bad had happened at one of the local refineries,” Nibarger said at the hearing. “This was of particular concern to me as I was an operator at the now Shell refinery in November 1998, when we had a release and fire that killed 6 of my coworkers. Little did I know that the sound I had just heard would signal an even more deadly accident.

“Refining hydrocarbons is an inherently dangerous operation. Imagine filling a coffee can about half full of gasoline, putting the lid on and setting it on the barbecue to cook. Multiply that by ten million. This is essentially what is going on in an oil refinery. That is why there are required safeguards to monitor the pressure, temperature and flow. That is why it is critical to assure the equipment is in good operating condition. This process can be operated in a safe manner, but it requires a commitment on the part of the employer to know for certain that they are doing all they can to maintain the equipment and equip the operators to be able to do the job that is required.”

Senator Murray’s full opening statement follows:

“The Subcommittee will come to order.

“First of all, I’d like to welcome our witnesses and guests to this hearing on keeping workers safe in the oil and gas industry. Thank you all for coming today.

“Before I begin, I want to mention a witness who should be here today but is not. I invited representatives from BP to be here to help us understand what has been going wrong at their company that has led to so many accidents, and what lessons they have learned from the disasters at their company—but they refused to be here.

“And honestly, I find it outrageous that even after an accident that killed 11 workers, BP is still not putting a high enough priority on worker safety to send a representative to a hearing specifically focused on protecting workers in their industry. I want to be clear—I am not going to stop working to get answers from BP—but I am extremely disappointed that they would not be here today.

“Like so many Americans, I am horrified and outraged at the continued devastation in the Gulf Coast.  But while there has been a lot of talk about the economic and environmental impact—I want to make sure we don’t forget about the oil and gas industry workers who deserve to be protected: The 11 workers who were killed on the Deepwater Horizon, the 15 workers who died and more than 170 injured at the BP Texas City refinery disaster in 2005, the 7 workers who were killed at the tragic fire at the Tesoro refinery in Anacortes, Washington this year; and the hundreds more who have been injured or killed at refineries, on rigs, and in other oil and gas facilities over the past few years. 

“These workers and their families deserve to understand what went wrong.  And every single worker deserves to feel confident that while they are working hard and doing their jobs, their employers are doing everything possible to keep them safe.

“And let’s be clear. Despite what anyone tries to say—this is not a safe industry.

“In the last 2 months alone there have been 13 fires, 19 deaths, and 25 injuries in the oil and gas industry. In just two months!

“In fact in 2010 alone, there has been an average one fire per week at our refineries.   And I should say those are just the fires that have been reported— refineries have no legal obligation to report every incident. And on Monday of this week, two more explosions rocked the industry – seven crewmembers in Morgantown, West Virginia were injured when a natural gas well exploded while they were drilling through an abandoned coal mine filled with methane gas, and a natural gas pipeline in Johnson County, Texas exploded—killing two more workers.

“To me, this doesn’t seem like simply a string of bad luck—it appears to be a disregard for safety regulations and precautions across the entire industry. And I am very concerned that it is the result of oil and gas companies that put profits and production over workers and safety.

“Just this week, a ProPublica article appeared in the Washington Post that highlighted a report issued by BP in 2001 reviewing safety concerns at their Prudhoe Bay drilling fields. Without objection I would like to submit this article for the record.

“In their ‘Review of Operational Integrity Concerns at Greater Prudhoe Bay,’ BP’s own workers noted that ‘Preventative maintenance, including scheduled maintenance required by regulation, has not been completed as scheduled for all fire and gas system equipment.’ And that ‘Many workers believe their ability to safely shutdown production has been diminished by staff reductions and the deterioration of the valves used to isolate production.’ And lastly and perhaps most shocking, the report stated, ‘Many of the employee concerns discussed in this report are not new and have been the subject of significant study and discussion for a considerable period.’

“This is simply unacceptable.  And we have seen other reports and studies over the years that have laid out extensive recommendations for improving worker safety.

 “In response to the Texas City tragedy, BP commissioned an independent panel to conduct a thorough review of the company’s corporate safety culture, safety management systems, and corporate safety oversight at its five U.S. refineries.  The Panel illustrated several clear and specific suggestions to address the major safety hazards that were found at all five of BP’s U.S. refineries. And in October of 2009, OSHA fined BP 87.4 million dollars for the company’s failure to correct potential hazards faced by employees – the largest fine issued in OSHA’s history.

“As if things weren’t bad enough, I’ve read reports that some of the same oil and gas companies that experienced fatal disasters at their work sites received safety awards within the same year of their accidents. In fact, the workers at BP Texas City were celebrating safety accomplishments at the very moment the explosion killed them. And it was reported that the same day the Deepwater Horizon exploded, a group of BP executives were onboard to celebrate the crew’s safety achievements.

“This is truly tragic. It is unacceptable. And it needs to change. 

“And to be clear, BP is not the only company with a poor record of safety.   It seems to me that the oil and gas industry as a whole has a hard time learning from their mistakes and making sure their workers are protected.

“But why is this? Is it that the regulations already on the books are being ignored? Or are the regulations currently in place not tough enough to do the job? We need to figure that out before more lives are destroyed.  And we need to make sure everyone knows that business as usual in this industry will no longer be tolerated. 

“As John Bresland, chairman of the Chemical Safety Board, recently told the Seattle Times, ‘if the aviation industry had the same number of types of incidents as the refining industry, I don’t think people would be flying too much.’ And I have to agree with Mr. Bresland.

“So today we are going to hear from witnesses who are going to explain to the Subcommittee why these incidents continue to happen. Why there continue to be shortcomings in the oil and gas industry when it comes to worker protections.  And what we need to do to make sure this industry improves.

“I am going to have some questions about the need for improved process safety management. And I am very interested in hearing examples of local efforts that have successfully addressed process safety hazards in the oil and gas industry.

“But before I turn it over to the ranking member, I want to briefly mention two incidents from Washington state that make this hearing particularly meaningful to families in my home state.

“The first one is recent.  I briefly mentioned earlier that an explosion at a Tesoro refinery in Anacortes, Washington killed 7 workers.  Well it also devastated a community and left a lot of people searching for answers.  We owe it to the workers, their families, and their community to make sure that a tragedy like this never happens again in our state or anywhere else. Because our state has a lot of men and women who go to work every day in the oil and gas industry. And they deserve to be protected.

“The other incident I want to mention happened a while ago, but it is still as relevant as ever. Exactly eleven years ago today—on June 10th 1999—a pipeline exploded in Bellingham, Washington, claiming the lives of three young Washingtonians and devastating the community.  Like the workers who lost their lives on the Deepwater Horizon and in Anacortes, I know that these three deaths can and should have been prevented.

“So with the help and support of the Bellingham community, I took the lessons we learned and fought hard to pass legislation in 2002 that has dramatically improved the pipeline system across our country.  What happened in Bellingham 11 years ago was a tragedy, but it was also a reminder that we can’t just assume someone else is taking care of things. We can’t slip back to where we were before. We have to stay vigilant and continue working to improve safety wherever we can.

“Which is why I believe it’s so fitting that this hearing on worker safety in the oil and gas industry is taking place on the 11th anniversary of this tragedy.  So once again, I am looking forward to hearing from our witnesses about this important issue. But before I introduce the first panel, I’d like to recognize Senator Isakson for his opening statement.”