Local air board calls for heightened safety at California's oil refineries

The Phillips 66 refinery on the Nipomo Mesa.
The Phillips 66 refinery on the Nipomo Mesa. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Safety requirements at the oil refineries in California should be on par with those in the nuclear power and aviation industries, which are considered the gold standards for safety.

That was the message delivered Wednesday by the San Luis Obispo County Air Pollution Control District board of directors to two top state environmental regulators.

Gregory Vlasek, chief of monitoring and emergency response with California's Air Resources Board, and Paul Penn, who heads refinery safety at the state Environmental Protection Agency, briefed the air board on a statewide effort to increase safety and emergency preparedness around oil refineries.

“The refineries are in mortal fear of an accident, but that fear has to be transferred into a safety culture at the plants, and it has to have the support of management,” Penn said.

The initiative was prompted by a fire at a Chevron refinery in August 2012 in Richmond that caused a huge cloud of smoke to cover much of the San Francisco Bay Area, causing air quality problems.

This caused Gov. Jerry Brown to appoint an Interagency Refinery Task Force to make improvements. Final regulations are due late next year.

San Luis Obispo is included in the process because Phillips 66 has a refinery on the Nipomo Mesa that performs initial refinement of locally produced crude oil before piping it to a refinery in Rodeo. Compared to other refineries in the state, the Nipomo Mesa refinery is small and has the added advantage of being located in a rural area and has a Cal Fire station next door, Penn said.

The new rules will only apply to onsite safety at refineries and will not include crude-by-rail issues. That issue is of intense local interest because Phillips 66 has proposed adding a new rail spur at the Nipomo Mesa refinery to allow crude oil deliveries by rail.

In response to the recommendations of the air board, Penn said the new statewide regulations should raise refinery safety to a level that will satisfy local concerns.

“We will recommend substantive improvements, not just window dressing, for safety at refineries,” he said. “I dare say what we come up with here will be the national model.”

Penn said that an enhanced safety culture in San Luis Obispo County as a result of the presence of Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant is evident. For example, the San Luis Obispo County air district is the only one in the state that regularly conducts emergency drills with the refinery in its district, he said.

The new rules could require additional monitoring and inspections at refineries to detect potential problems. For example, the Richmond accident was caused by a pipe that had corroded undetected to the point that it burst.

They could also require additional safety features, such as additional automatic shutoff valves on key pipes. A recent oil spill at Refugio Beach in Santa Barbara County was worsened by the fact that the pipeline did not have an automatic shutoff valve.

The air board praised efforts of the state to improve safety and welcomed future updates. “I think there are a lot of lessons that we can go back to make us all safer,” said Pismo Beach City Councilman Ed Waage.

A representative of Phillips 66 did not give a presentation or make comments at the meeting. The county air district constantly monitors the Nipomo Mesa refinery for emissions of such air pollutants as nitrous oxide and sulfur.