Three years ago, Utahns were worried about safety at the five oil refineries in northern Salt Lake and southern Davis counties. That concern followed a fire that injured four workers and an explosion that damaged dozens of homes near the Silver Eagle refinery in Woods Cross. The two accidents occurred within a single year, 2009.
Earlier this month, a tank exploded at the HollyFrontier refinery, also in Woods Cross, sending an 8,000-gallon plume of crude oil over a mile-long swath of Davis County. No one was injured, and the oil apparently is not toxic But it created a sticky mess at countless homes.
The fire and explosion in 2009 at Silver Eagle came the same year that a fireball erupted at the Tesoro refinery in Salt Lake City. Holly also had a big fire in 2008.
These incidents are just the worst in an ongoing series. The Salt Lake Tribune reported Sunday that on average there is a leak, spill, fire, blast or air-pollution violation every nine days at the five refineries. Many are minor, but some, obviously, are not.
The job of overseeing worker safety and by extension, public safety at these plants falls to the Utah Labor Commission and one of its divisions, the Utah Occupational Safety and Health Administration. UOSH threw the book at Silver Eagle in the aftermath of its 2009 explosion, citing it for 71 violations, including problems with equipment, safety procedures and records. It levied fines of $1 million.
But there must be continuing concern and oversight of safety going forward, particularly in light of the frequent violations highlighted in The Tribune's reporting. In 2007, two years after an explosion at a Texas refinery killed 15 workers and injured 170, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration mandated inspection of all U.S. refineries within two years. UOSH is conducting those reviews in Utah. Records indicate it has completed inspections of three of the Salt Lake-area refineries, and has completed partial inspections of two others. Utahns have a right to expect that those inspections will be completed soon.
Meanwhile, the Holly, Chevron and Tesoro refineries all plan to expand capacity to process more wax crudes produced in the Uintah Basin.
Utah is fortunate to have both domestic supplies of crude oil and local refining capacity. Like it or not, modern society runs on oil.
But that does not mean Utahns should tolerate refinery risks that can be minimized by vigilant regulation, both within the refining companies and the state government.