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Lessons (Not) Learned From the Chevron Fire

2:55 pm in Uncategorized by Consumer Watchdog

Chevron Refinery Fire

On Friday, federal accident investigators told California legislators that the state’s patchwork of oil industry regulations needs a serious overhaul. The Chevron fire that produced a toxic cloud and sent 15,000 people to the hospital could have been prevented, but the system was reactive and not designed to foresee and forestall problems, said the U.S. Chemical Safety Board. Duh. The board didn’t need 18 months to come to that conclusion. But Don Holstrom, lead investigator for the board, did put his finger on one problem: the need to bump up the number, skills, and authority of refinery inspectors.

Something smells when an agency purposefully cripples its own enforcement abilities. One good example is the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC). The DTSC exists to protect communities like Richmond from toxic harm. And for years, it’s done a very poor job of it.

The DTSC has broad statutory authority to sanction these giant chemical plants for toxic releases like the one that Chevron caused in its fire, but it consistently refuses. Better yet, the DTSC should play a pro-active role in preventing harm as the department is supposed to do. So, you’d think the DTSC would view having refinery inspectors on staff as a high priority—inspectors that could be given broad latitude to inspect the guts of a refinery where hazardous substances slosh around and not just its excrement. Evidently, the DTSC thinks the fewer refinery inspectors the better.

The DTSC has only two refinery inspectors for the entire state and one of them is green and in training. The DTSC used to have more. But when other inspectors from its refinery unit retired or left, the DTSC didn’t bother to replace them. Nine vacancies in the unit handing refinery inspections were the result. Two scientist positions were approved for the refinery inspection unit and then inexplicably redirected to other positions and regions.

Refinery inspections are the most complex kind and the scientists that do them sometimes take a week to complete them. These scientists know the ins and outs of dealing with refineries. The DTSC maintains that any scientist can conduct a refinery inspection, but that just isn’t true. “Anyone who says that all DTSC scientists can conduct them and are trained to do them is either lying or out of their mind,” says one DTSC career investigator.

Under the direction of Chief Deputy Director Odette Madriago positions can be cut or simply re-directed, the investigator said. On top of that, “Odette has put in place the strictest travel requirements of all CAL EPA.” The inspectors and investigators that have to travel have to fill out a lengthy document and have to get approval from their supervisor before they can go do an inspection or investigation. “These travel restrictions have allowed polluters to go unchecked and unregulated,” the investigator said.

One explanation is budgets are tight. Another is that it isn’t in the interest of someone like Ms. Madriago to regulate an industry in which she invests. She’s invested up to $100,000 in Chevron and in BP Amoco. Why regulate these refineries and sanction them millions of dollars that could affect their stock price?

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Sacramento Responds To Golden Wasteland Report/NBC Expose

4:53 pm in Uncategorized by Consumer Watchdog

Somebody’s listening. We issued Golden Wasteland this morning, a harsh look at the Department of Toxic Substances Control and how it’s falling down on its job of protecting Californians and the environment from toxic harm. NBC took a deep look at the Department last night as well — and its director refused to answer direct questions. Well now Sacramento has some of its own.

Senator DeLeon (D-Los Angeles) just wrote DTSC Director Debbie Raphael asking for some answers about its lack of enforcement and its mismanagement of hazard waste regulation. He’s calling for a Senate investigation.

Evergreen Is Never Clean: Time For Hazardous Waste Regulators to Act

1:57 pm in Uncategorized by Consumer Watchdog

Evergreen Oil Refinery

If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? If a hazardous vapor spews out of an industrial plant, but no regulator reacts, was there ever a leak?

Well, on July 6, Evergreen Oil workers decided not to stick around to find out. Some 70 workers walked off the job the minute they heard there was a leak at the hazardous waste and used motor oil recycling plant. It was a “self-evacuation,” according to the Alameda County Fire Department. One worker did go to a medical facility, was evaluated for exposure, and later released. Everybody else came back sometime after the leak was contained in the mid-morning.

But no worries, said the Alameda Fire Department. The leak was harmless to people’s health. And Newark City officials patted Evergreen’s plant manager on the back for, get this, reporting the leak properly and quickly. Sadly, that could be a first.

Here’s what we know about Evergreen Oil up in Newark, California in the East Bay area: It handles hazardous waste materials like anti-freeze and other toxic waste. And it’s the only oil refinery recycling used motor oil here in the West. It employs a couple of hundred workers, generates about $36 million in sales each year, and has been operating since the mid 1980s.

Now, recycling used motor oil is a great idea. We want to live sustainably. And we need to do something about the underbelly of toxic waste in California from chemicals used to make computers to the engine oil you left behind at your last oil change.

The problem is that Evergreen Oil’s operations aren’t safe. It’s a serial toxic polluter with a very long record. The point isn’t just this particular leak on July 6, which was quickly contained. The point is this leak is part of a much bigger problem involving Evergreen’s record of operations, and its ability to negotiate its way out any real accountability.

Since opening in 1986, nearly every agency with the ability to fine Evergreen has done so. Evergreen’s been cited for dangerous levels of cyanide, arsenic, and other harmful chemicals in its wastewater, for violating public health standards, for the toxic gases it has allowed to emanate from the site and that have, on occasion, reached the nostrils of school children, for poisonous fumes and odors at the site, for an explosion, and for illegally handling, treating and disposing of hazardous waste.
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Contradictory Information on Hazardous NorCal Waste Plant Accident Means It’s Time to Close It Down

6:06 pm in Uncategorized by Consumer Watchdog

Timidity and Fragmented Oversight of Evergreen Oil Plant Hamper Enforcement, Endanger Community, Says Group

Shut the Refinery Down

New information obtained from emergency responders shows that a July 6th high-temperature leak at the Evergreen Oil re-refining plant in Newark, California involved a hazardous industrial chemical, not just recycled motor oil, as initially reported. Consumer Watchdog called on the chief regulator of the facility to shut the plant down. In a letter sent Tuesday to Debbie Raphael, Director of the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC), the consumer organization asked her to convene fragmented regulatory agencies and respond strongly to the latest in a long series of safety violations and accidents at the plant in Newark, CA.

According to Consumer Watchdog, regulators are unclear about who is the lead regulator overseeing the facility, with DTSC’s own enforcers acknowledging they are uncertain of the department’s authority over the whole plant, which processes used motor oil. They were also not aware of what actions other agencies might be taking.

“The DTSC, which should be the leader in any event involving this serial safety violator, seems almost to be looking for reasons not to get involved,” said Consumer Watchdog advocate Liza Tucker. “This is an opportunity for the new director to show strong leadership and creativity in a department that appears to have faltered for years.”

The letter sent Tuesday said in part:

“Such holes in oversight must be filled for the safety of all Californians. Rather than parsing its ability to regulate this portion and not that portion of a toxic waste plant, the DTSC should put itself at the forefront of saying that this is one dangerous accident too many.…. “

“On its face, the idea that the DTSC would have authority to regulate one part of a hazardous waste plant but not another is absurd, particularly when the release on July 6 was hazardous enough to warrant an evacuation, whether the dangerous leak was in the re-refinery area of the plant or not. “

Download the entire letter here with a timeline of events

On July 6, a pipe leak spewed a hazardous vapor filled with “heat transfer” chemicals used in re-refining. That triggered an emergency evacuation of the facility. The company and Newark police warned the surrounding community, including a nearby elementary school, to expect a wave of “strong chemical odors” from the leak.

See link to CAL-EMA public record of initial report here.

The DTSC said that the leak on July 6 took place in a portion of Evergreen’s facility where recycled oil is processed. A DTSC official stated that the department’s hands are tied because the permit issued to Evergreen does not cover the part of the facility where the leak occurred. According to DTSC, once the waste oil has been partially treated, it is no longer considered a “hazard.” But the heat transfer liquid used to control refining temperatures is hazardous, according to the Alameda County Health and Environmental Agency.

“Evergreen’s long history of repeated and serious safety violations has to come to an end,” said Tucker. “The department has to take control of the situation, including coordination with other regulators, for the sake of the community surrounding the Evergreen plant, and to set an example for all Californians.”

The July 6 accident markeds the latest in a string of problems at the plant that includes a burst pipe and major fire in March 2011 and repeated citations by the DTSC for safety violations and carelessness. Yet the DTSC has let the company off the hook with consent decrees and hand-slap fines for at least a dozen years, said Consumer Watchdog. The group said now is the opportune time for new leadership at the DTSC to rethink its approach to regulating hazardous waste and recycling facilities.

Click here for more.

Read Consumer Watchdog’s July 16 letter to DTSC Director Debbie Raphael here.

Also read Consumer Watchdog’s April 9 letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Urging Regulators to Shut Down Refiner After Leak That Endangered Northern California Community

2:38 pm in Uncategorized by Consumer Watchdog

State Department of toxic Substances Control Must Send “Strong Message” to Evergreen Oil Re-Refiner Over Repeated Safety Lapses, Accidents

Refineries

Consumer Watchdog called on the Director of the California Department of Toxic Substances Control, Debbie Raphael, to indefinitely close the Evergreen Oil waste-oil re-refinery in Newark, Ca. in a letter sent today. On July 6, a pipe leak spewed “superheated oil” and triggered an emergency evacuation of the facility. The company and Newark police warned the surrounding community, including a nearby elementary school, to expect a wave of “strong odors” from the leak.

Read today’s letter to Raphael here

Consumer Watchdog cited repeated problems at the facility as an example of DTSC’s failure to take tough action against toxic industries that continue to operate after repeated safety violations near homes and schools in testimony and a letter presented at Debbie Raphael’s State Senate confirmation hearings in April.

The confirmation letter said several companies, including Evergreen, “appear to have manipulated or ignored the DTSC and other agencies to the detriment of concerned and frustrated local residents.”

The accident marks the latest in a string of problems at the plant that re-refines used motor oil, including a burst pipe and major fire in March 2011 and repeated citations by the DTSC for safety violations and carelessness.

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