By Robert McClure and Will Graff
ConocoPhillips’ refinery near Ferndale has been repeatedly fined by regional air-pollution inspectors and last year drew two citations from state workplace-safety regulators who said a fire there was caused by faulty maintenance.
Refinery workers’ failure to lubricate a motor sparked the June 2010 fire, state records show. The motor, installed in 2008, required regular greasing, while the equipment it replaced had required only occasional maintenance, said Hector Castro, spokesman for the state Department of Labor and Industries. State officials levied a fine of $6,300.
Previously, ConocoPhillips had actually invited state labor inspectors to come to the refinery to review worker-protection measures under a state law that allows the company to avoid punishment for shortcomings discovered by state inspectors, Castro said. The labor agency has not yet responded to an InvestigateWest request for records related to that consultation.
The fine imposed by L&I for the fire last year is dwarfed by the more than $200,000 in fines assessed on ConocoPhillips by the refinery’s air-pollution regulator, the Northwest Clean Air Agency, since 2005. That agency has issued the company a number of violation notices over the years, said Annie Naismith, the air-pollution regulator assigned to the ConocoPhillips facility, although the citations did not involve hydrofluoric acid.
Records show the refinery has been the subject of 38 violation notices since 1994, the latest time in 2008 when the facility emitted high levels of sulfur dioxide “due to poor or inadequate maintenance,” records state. That was at least the sixth time a sulfur dioxide violation was noted by the Clean Air Agency, records show.
Clean Air Agency fines against the refinery since 1994 totaled more than $317,000. The largest fines were:
- $92,000 in 2005 when the refinery violated limits on acid gas flaring at a sulfur recovery unit;
- $52,500 in 2007 when a test showed excess pressure at a gasoline-loading truck rack.
- $30,000 in 2006 when the refinery violated limits on carbon monoxide coming from a sulfur recovery unit.
State Department of Ecology records show the refinery’s permit to handle hazardous waste expired in 1999 and was not renewed until 2010, although Ecology allowed the facility to keep operating and said at least part of the delay stemmed from Ecology being too short-handed to process the permit.
Ecology inspects the refinery’s hazardous-waste handling every year and its processing of wastewater every two years, said Ecology inspector Liem Nguyen. State records show the last such inspection was in August 2009.
During the unannounced inspection, Nguyen and inspector Ha Tran noted no major violations. They did report some small problems, such as oil dripping from two containers onto the concrete surface in front of the automotive shop. The inspectors asked the refinery to “improve housekeeping practices,” records show, and noted that ConocoPhillips records showed there had been five oil spills at the refinery over the past two years. Another was reported last October, news according to news accounts.
Editor’s note: This story, originally posted Feb. 24, 2011, was updated Feb. 28, 2011, to reflect the recent fines by the Department of Labor & Industries.