Earlier this week we learned that Tesoro—an oil refiner with nasty politics and a rap sheet a mile long — will be facing a criminal investigation for the April explosion at its Anacortes, Washington facility that killed seven workers and earned it the largest L&I fine in state history for “willful disregard of safety regulations.”

Then yesterday, the Tesoro refinery in Martinez, California (about 45 minutes northeast of San Francisco) had another major flare-up. Plumes of toxic black smoke rose over neighboring communities, and officials were forced to issue an emergency “shelter-in-place” warning. As the Oakland Tribunereports:

All five of the refinery’s flares began burning gases and shooting flames after the power failed just after 4 p.m. Wednesday.

…residents were advised to close all windows and doors, and to turn off heaters, air conditioners and fans. Health officials also advised closing fireplace dampers and vents and covering cracks around doors and windows with tape or damp towels.

  • The cause, apparently, was an electrical substation failure in the vicinity that resulted in a loss of power to the refinery, forcing crews to flare off gases that would otherwise escape in even more poisonous forms, according to reporting at the San Jose Mercury News.

    No ill effects have so far been reported, but it’s more than a little concerning that Tesoro’s facilities seem unable to handle a power outage. And it’s especially worrisome because this is hardly the first time the Martinez refinery has had problems. In fact, just last month, a fire erupted there, resulting in at least one hospitalization. And in August, a ruptured pipeline at the facility spilled thousands of gallons of hazardous materials.

    That was the same month, in fact, that Tesoro agreed to pay fines for 44 air quality violations in the Bay Area between 2006 and 2008. Which was hardly the first time Tesoro had been fined for breaking the law at the Martinez refinery. Just two years prior, in 2008, the company negotiated a settlement for 77 violations (see page 160), for which it paid $1.5 million. What’s more, air quality violations at the Martinez plant in 2005 earned the company a fine of $1.1 million, one of the largest ever charged to any of the five Bay Area refineries.

    If you ask me, yesterday’s scare wasn’t just a mishap. It’s becoming increasingly clear that Tesoro is a rogue operator with insufficient regard for worker safety or environmental protection. No wonder their politics are so toxic.

    Oh, wait. I almost forgot what else happened to Tesoro this week: they reported third quarter net earnings of $56 million—a whopping 70 percent increase over the third quarter of 2009. And it would have been more too, if they hadn’t had to lay out $17 million for the deadly Anacortes fire.

    ***

    Update 11/15/10: Bay area television station KTVU reports that the Martinez refinery’s week got even rougher: 84 gallons of sulfuric acid leaked from a tank at the plant. The spill was, apparently, contained on-site with no injuries reported.