NuStar Fire Prompts Contra Costa County Supervisor to Seek Stronger Oversight of Petrochemical Tank Farms

The dramatic fire at the NuStar tank farm Tuesday prompted a Contra Costa County supervisor to call for more rigorous oversight of at least six petrochemical facilities that he says are currently exempted from his county’s more rigorous regulation under the industrial safety ordinance governing oil refineries and chemical plants.

The fire at the facility in Crockett near the Phillips refinery in Rodeo destroyed two ethanol storage tanks and led to the prolonged shutdown of Interstate 80 and shelter-in-place warnings. The fire was smaller, but similar to what happened in March, when, for several days, fire ravaged 11 petrochemical tanks in Deer Park, Texas.

“These facilities are really in a regulatory black hole right now,” said Daniel Horowitz, a chemist who managed the U.S. Chemical Safety board, the federal agency that investigates industrial accidents.

The problem, Horowitz said, is that although tank farms store dangerously volatile petrochemicals, they have been made exempt from federal regulations governing oil refineries and the big chemical plants they serve. Ethanol – a gasoline additive -- and other petrochemicals are not considered in the highest risk category that would merit routine tank inspections under federal rules.

Officials said Wednesday they would have inspected the NuStar facility had there been a complaint or accident, but the facility had a good safety track record. Cal-OSHA did investigate an incident at the NuStar facility in Pittsburg in 2015 but did not find any violations.

Unlike tank farms, the state worker safety agency carries out extensive scheduled inspections of oil refineries in the state, along with accident and complaint investigations.

NuStar’s Pittsburg facility did raise a red flag for county hazardous materials inspectors this past July, however, when they found deficiencies in the tests being performed to test the integrity of its tanks there. The county ordered the company to comply with its already approved testing plan.

Contra Costa county Supervisor John Gioia said he was surprised to learn that both NuStar tank farms were exempt from the county’s rigorous industrial safety ordinance – because they are not on refinery property.

“This fire, which could have been a lot worse and could have killed people shined the light on the fact that we need stronger and better regulatory authority over these storage tank farms, both at the federal, state and local level,” he said, adding that he is meeting with the industry to tell them that he intends to regulate the tank farms that are operated separately from the county’s four oil refineries.

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