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A day after a deadly accident at Valero’s Texas City refinery, officials with the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration arrived at the plant Saturday to begin an investigation into what went wrong.
Tommy Mannis, 40, an instrument and electrical operator from Alvin, was killed in an explosion around 9 p.m. Friday night as a work crew was attempting to restart a boiler that had tripped offline earlier in the day. Another Valero employee and a contract worker sustained minor injuries.
Investigations being conducted by Valero and the federal government will try to pinpoint why the boiler failed.
“We know it was very cold yesterday, but it wasn’t necessarily related to the weather,” Valero spokesman Bill Day told reporters at a news conference at the plant Saturday afternoon. Mannis had worked at the refinery since March 2007.
The 245,000 barrel-per-day refinery, Valero’s third largest, never shut down, and continued to run at planned rates Saturday. The damaged boiler, at the facility’s northwest corner, had provided steam to refining units, but the plant was able to run with other boilers on the site.
Still, the accident cast a somber pall over the sprawling facility as workers went about their jobs Saturday.
“Something like this affects all of us,” Day said, noting grief counselors had been made available to Texas City workers.
San Antonio-based Valero, the nation’s largest oil refiner, has struggled in recent months amid a downturn in demand for gasoline, diesel and other petroleum-based fuels. Other major refiners have also felt the pinch.
Valero recently said it would permanently close its Delaware City, Del., refinery. It has also indefinitely idled a plant in Aruba and reduced production at other sites.
In Texas City, the company has tried to improve efficiency and install units that are less costly to operate, Day said, but it has not cut any of the plant’s roughly 500 employees and has kept safety a top priority, he said.
Valero officials said they notified governmental and regulatory agencies, including the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, of the incident.
Officials with OSHA did not return calls Saturday seeking comment about the office’s investigation of the Valero Texas City incident.
‘Very challenging year’
Daniel Horowitz, spokesman for the Chemical Safety Board, an independent federal agency charged with investigating chemical and refinery accidents, said his agency has not yet decided whether it will open a formal investigation.
In part, that’s because the agency is stretched thin with eight other open investigations of incidents at U.S. refineries, not all of them fatal, he said.
“It’s been a very challenging year for refinery safety,” he said.
The Valero accident shines a light on the need for greater training for operators that work with boilers, said Charlie Singletary, business manager with the International Union of Operating Engineers, Local 564, which represents workers in area petrochemical plants but not the Valero facility.
“Boilers are not taken seriously in the state of Texas,” he said, noting that no state license is required for technicians as it is some other states.
Valero workers have been extensively trained for their jobs, Day said. But the company plans to discuss safety issues with employees in the wake of the accident.
by Brett Clanton Houston Chronicle December 07, 2009
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