What They Don’t Know:

An Analysis of Worker and Public Safety Hazards at Marathon Petroleum’s St. Paul Park Refinery

 Refinery operators and maintenance contractors must be held to the highest standards, not only because of the risks that refinery workers face, but also due to the potential impact of a major safety event on surrounding communities. Failure to follow instructions or use of the wrong equipment can inadvertently expose workers to toxic chemicals, or, in the worst case, risk a major chemical release or fire.

While Minnesota has largely avoided major refinery incidents in recent decades, a 2018 explosion at the Husky oil refinery in Superior, Wisconsin, sparked concerns in Minnesota about the potential risk of refineries to workers and the surrounding communities, including the nearby city of Duluth. A hole in a valve caused an explosion that injured 36 people. The explosion sprayed debris across the facility, puncturing an asphalt tank and spilling 15,000 gallons of asphalt. The explosion injured 36 workers, caused approximately $27 million in damage, and impacted an estimated 3,000 businesses and residents. But experts say that the consequences could have been much worse if the explosion had damaged a hydrogen fluoride rather than an asphalt tank.

The Husky Refinery explosion was a reminder of the possible risks to surrounding communities, posed by refineries, especially those that use hydrogen fluoride -- a toxic chemical that can be deadly even at limited levels of exposure. Just over a third of all US refineries use hydrogen fluoride, including the Husky Refinery and Marathon’s St. Paul Park Refinery (SPP).

Use of hydrogen fluoride is not the only characteristic that sets SPP apart from Flint Hills Resources' neighboring Pine Bend refinery, SPP has also seen an unusually high level of ownership turnover since 2010. Marathon took over ownership of SPP when the company merged with Andeavor in 2018 -- the fourth ownership change in less than a decade. Near constant ownership turnover has clearly taken a toll on the safety culture at SPP, where one refinery worker described the result as a “hodge podge” of safety standards and protocols.

Interviews with workers with extensive refinery experience yielded disturbing accounts and observations which suggest that an already troubled safety culture became markedly worse after Marathon’s 2018 takeover. These workers cited management decisions to eliminate safety positions, and to replace local contractors and workforce with decades of experience at the facility, in an apparent effort to cut operating costs. In the words of Matt Foss, a longtime operator, many of the new maintenance workers, “don’t know what they don’t know, and that is a dangerous thing in a place like St. Paul Park refinery."

A poor safety culture at any workplace should be cause for concern, but the possibility of serious safety lapses at a refinery -- especially one that uses hydrogen fluoride -- is especially concerning given the potential risk to both workers and the general public. The goals of this report are to assess the current conditions at SPP, and to recommend steps Marathon could take to minimize risks to workers and surrounding communities. Based on interviews with current and former employees of SPP and the facility’s maintenance contractors, this report finds evidence of a troubled safety culture and unsafe practices that could jeopardize the health and safety of workers, or even the public at large.

In this report we find the following:

Finding #1 - The safety standards and culture at the St. Paul Park refinery compared unfavorably to the neighboring Pine Bend refinery according to workers with experience at both facilities. Workers interviewed described several key differences, including management’s evident failure to make safety a priority, and the facility’s continued use of problem maintenance contractors.

Finding #2 - Workers interviewed shared evidence that safety conditions worsened at the St. Paul Park refinery after Marathon assumed control of the facility in 2018, citing decisions that include the elimination of dedicated safety positions and the removal of experienced maintenance contractors, among other factors.

Finding #3 - Workers interviewed provided multiple examples of hydrocarbon or other chemical releases that clearly occurred as a result of avoidable errors, potentially endangering refinery personnel and environmental resources. Examples included the accidental aerial dispersal of sodium hydroxide, failure to properly document chemical disposal, and hydrocarbon spills that were apparently so common that they earned the nicknames “snail trails” and “chemtrails” -- the latter is a reference to contractor HydroChemPSC.

Finding #4 - Workers provided multiple examples of clearly unsafe work practices that created avoidable fire hazards, including apparent failures to properly handle flammable chemicals, improper installation of fire safety controls during maintenance, and attempts to use the wrong equipment for hazardous material cleanup which could have triggered a potential explosion according to witnesses. A worker at a Marathon refinery in Mandan, North Dakota also described a major fire hazard incident that apparently required an evacuation and use of multiple water cannons.

Finding #5 - Witness accounts indicate an obvious lack of experience and training on the part of replacement workers brought into the facility after Marathon began removing local maintenance contractors. For example, one witness encountered replacement workers that clearly did not know how to operate breathing apparatus or refinery fire hydrants, while another found a group of workers apparently trying to figure out how to operate their vac truck by watching a YouTube video.

Finding #6 - Witnesses provided examples of workers reportedly being assigned to work under potentially hazardous conditions, even after safety concerns had been raised. These included workers assigned to work on scaffolding that multiple individuals with scaffold-building experience deemed to be unsafe; and an incident in which a union crew asked for supplied air, and instead a nonunion crew was sent in to do the work.

Finding #7 - Workers indicated that management evidently bent rules or ignored safety policies and best practices in apparent efforts to cut costs or accommodate problem contractors. Workers cited examples ranging from operators being required to allow crews to dump unknown chemicals into tanks, to work evidently being performed without adequate safety plans in place.

Industrial disasters are prevented by employing highly trained workers and maintaining rigorous safety standards. Unfortunately, this report details evident failures to stick to these foundational principles. Ultimately, we are concerned that failure to adhere to rigorous safety standards could not only endanger SPP workers but also surrounding communities.

Not only could the use of an inexperienced and poorly trained workforce increase the risk of a fire or chemical release, as detailed in this report, but it is unclear whether these workers would be prepared to properly use a hydrant to contain a fire, or personal breathing apparatus to protect themselves.

Read the full report here

Minor corrections and updates were made to the report on 05/02/2021. The corrections do not affect the findings of the report.