Search on for cause of Exxon refinery fire; four critically injured

By Tim Monzingo and Dan Wallach
The Beaumont Enterprise

BEAUMONT, Texas — Federal investigators, plant officials and union members today will continue to search for the cause of a flash fire at Exxon Mobil’s Beaumont refinery Wednesday that injured at least a dozen workers – four critically.

The workers were contract employees of Signature Industrial Services, KT Maintenance, and Brock Services, LLC., according to a news release issued by Exxon Mobil Thursday morning.

Of the workers injured in the fire, seven were taken to the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, UTMB spokeswoman Molly Dannenmaier said Thursday. Four of those patients were listed in critical condition, two were listed in serious condition, and one patient was in fair condition, she said.

Exxon Mobil spokeswoman Kathleen Jackson said those injured were working on a maintenance project in a processing unit that was shut down for repairs when a “small fire” broke out around 10:30 a.m. Wednesday.

The fire was an uncommon event for the Beaumont facility, which has fewer incidents than the industry average.

“We appreciate the prompt and caring efforts of our area’s first responders from the City of Beaumont and Jefferson County who were quick to render aid and to the paramedics and local authorities for their immediate response and care,” Exxon Mobil said in Thursday’s release. “We deeply regret the incident. We are working with the contract companies to ensure these contract employees receive the best medical attention and they have our full combined support. Our thoughts and prayers go out to them and to their families.”

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Claude Wilhelm, Signature Industrial Services’ general manager and vice president, said his company routinely does maintenance for the refinery. He did not say specifically what work was being performed when the accident happened.

Wilhelm said several of the injured workers were long-term employees of the company.

“We’re just worried about these families and that’s what we’re trying to deal with this evening,” Wilhelm said Wednesday while driving to Galveston to see some of the hospitalized workers. “The task that the guys were performing and the investigation and all that will be done, just not right this minute.”

The company is looking into setting up a benefit fund for the workers. Wilhelm said an Exxon Mobil official was expected to meet with them to help with the families’ needs.

“The families will definitely be taken care of, and most important the employees themselves (will be taken care of),” he said.

Exxon Mobil’s Beaumont refinery processes about 350,000 barrels of crude oil per day, Jackson said, and the refinery employs 1,200 people. Jackson did not know how many contract workers were at the plant.

Richard “Hoot” Landry, international representative for the United Steelworkers union, said he learned from the local operating union that the process unit was undergoing a planned maintenance turnaround. Maintenance on parts of the unit is done every year.

“It was a planned turnaround, so we see nothing abnormal with that,” Landry said.

Jackson said fires and hazardous incidents like Wednesday’s are rare events.

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Kim Nibarger, United Steelworkers health and safety specialist, said the union has kept tabs on refinery fires since 2007 and sees an average of 41 a year in the United States.

The union has raised concerns about longer periods between turnarounds putting workers at increased risk.

Refineries once performed scheduled maintenance every three years in process units but has extended those intervals to four or five years, Nibarger said in a telephone interview.

In 2010, during a national conference before the union negotiated the 2012 contract now in effect with refiners, Nibarger said refiners are downplaying the risks at individual plants.

“The industry says it’s managing the risk, but in most instances it’s based too narrowly on an individual plant’s history and that creates a false perspective of the risk involved,” Nibarger said at the time.

The most recent fatality in a refinery occurred at a Valero Energy Corp. refinery in Memphis, Tenn., on Dec. 3. An explosion released a hazardous chemical that killed a refinery employee and injured a contract employee.

Exxon Mobil’s Beaumont refinery participates in the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s Voluntary Protection Programs, which “recognize employers and workers…who have implemented effective safety and health management systems and maintain injury and illness rates below national Bureau of Labor Statistics averages for their respective industries,” according to OSHA’s website.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality monitored the air around the refinery for excessive emissions but did not detect elevated readings of any hazardous material, said Terry Clawson, TCEQ spokesman.

Jackson said the fire will not affect production at the refinery.

Exxon Mobil is required to submit a preliminary report to TCEQ within 24 hours of the incident.

OSHA requires a report within eight hours of an injury at a plant site.