Labor Warns of Safety Risk in Restart of Fire-Damaged Citgo Texas Refinery

October 7, 2009

The United Steelworkers union have warned U.S. safety regulators that an accelerated schedule for repairs and restart of a fire-damaged unit at Citgo’s refinery in Corpus Christi, Texas, may pose safety risks to workers and nearby residents, according to a letter released last Friday by the union.

Citgo was speeding repairs to the unit at the 163,000 barrel-per-day refinery for a planned restart on Oct. 18 and 19, the Corpus Christi local union president said in the letter, dated Sept. 25 to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

“The local union and the international union are very concerned about the safety of the workers and are concerned for the citizens of Corpus Christi outside the gates of Citgo,” local union President John Warner wrote in the letter. “If this accelerated pace and disregard of regulations continues we fear another worst-case scenario.”

A Citgo spokesman declined to comment on the matter.

Warner asked OSHA to do a complete review of the repairs and restart of the unit.

An OSHA spokeswoman said the agency does not comment on open cases.

OSHA is investigating a July 19 explosion on the alkylation unit that severely injured one worker and caused a fire that burned for several days, raising fears deadly hydrofluoric acid from the unit would spread through nearby neighborhoods.

The Corpus Christi explosion and an incident at an Illinois refinery led the Steelworkers and environmental organizations to call for a nationwide phase-out of alkylation units that use hydrogen fluoride as a catalyst to make high octane blending components for gasoline.

Hydrogen fluoride can easily transform into hydrofluoric acid, which, in addition to severe burns, can damage the heart, lungs and bones in humans.

Among the problems the union saw were needed work being cut to speed the repairs, a possible lack of needed instruments to operate the unit when it restarts, and Citgo ignoring its own rules to bring the unit back online.

The safety concerns of the workers in association with the current rate of projects being cut in electrical, instrumentation, and piping as management proceeds with the repair of the alkylation unit are justified,” Warner wrote.

In July, sources familiar with operations at the refinery, said the deferred maintenance due to cost cutting at Citgo played a role in the blast.

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board is investigating the explosion and Illinois incident. OSHA as well as state and federal environmental regulators are investigating the Corpus Christi blast.

Citgo is the U.S. refining and marketing subsidiary of Venezuelan national oil company PDVSA.

(Reporting by Erwin Seba; Editing by Marguerita Choy)

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