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Hindsight is 20/20

It’s hard to believe it’s been five years since the tragedy at the British Petroleum (BP) Texas City refinery. The March 23, 2005 explosion killed 15 people and injured another 170, the U.S. nation's worst and most fatal industrial incident since 1990. It’s sobering to think about how many lives were impacted by an incident that, as the reports following the investigations showed, could have been prevented. I still remember watching the images on the television following the explosion. I had just moved from another industry to continue my public relations career in the world of refining and energy and thought to myself as I watched the coverage of the BP incident, “I work for the energy industry and a refinery, now. I hope I never have to go through this situation.”

Following tragedies like the BP incident in Texas City, the critical question is always why? What really happened that day five years ago so that it can be prevented in the future? There are learnings from the incident investigations.  The Texas City explosion occurred when part of the plant’s isomerization unit, which raises the level of octane in gasoline, overfilled with flammable liquid hydrocarbons. The flammable liquid and vapor ignited as the unit started up. Alarms and gauges that were installed and meant to warn of the overfilling equipment failed to work. More specifically, the investigations pointed to an outdated pressure release system called a blowdown stack that was at the heart of the failures.

Given what was learned after this tragedy, there have been changes in the last five years—changes that even I had to understand, deal with and explain to others now that I work in the refining industry. One of those changes was the Occupational, Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) implementing its National Emphasis Program (NEP) for U.S. refineries. In fact, Suncor’s Commerce City refinery completed its OSHA NEP audit on our own process safety management procedures in 2009 and is working to complete the required changes and action items following that audit.

Having now reached my own five-year anniversary working in the energy industry and being in a refining environment, I have a deeper and more profound appreciation for safety, for incident investigations and for all of the efforts that go on day in and day out to ensure safe and reliable operations at our plant. The reason I appreciate the amount of effort I see around personal and process safety is, at the end of the day, industry has a responsibility—to its employees, contractors on our sites, the communities where we operate and to the consumers who rely on our products—to have as paramount safe and reliable operations. The energy industry is about producing and distributing the quality fuels and products our customers demand … and to do so safely. Safety does not come before ‘production.’ It can’t. Rather, safety is central to all parts of the equation. Through all of the processing and heating of oil and putting products into streams for more processing, followed by blending and then storing into tanks to be picked up by trucks at loading terminals and distributed to the end user, safety at all of those points in the equation is a must; the reason why is lives are in the equation, too. 

The five-year anniversary of the BP tragedy has paused me to look at all that Suncor Energy is doing to ensure personal and process safety measures are taken. Refineries can be run safely and that requires not only having the right processes and procedures in place, but having diligence and passion around them so that at the end of the day, we all go home to our families safely. We keep our communities where we run safe. And, we continue to provide fuels to our customers.

It may be cliché to say hindsight is 20/20. But, the saying was probably never so poignant for BP and its management moments, days, weeks and even years following the tragedy. Their perspectives certainly changed about their own safety processes, safety culture and what could have been done to change or prevent the events of March 23, 2005. The industry's regulators' perspectives have changed. The public's perspectives have changed. In fact, likely everyone’s perspectives changed. I know mine has, as well.

To see the U.S. Chemical Safety Board's video on the findings from the BP tragedy, you can visit the following site: http://www.csb.gov/videoroom/detail.aspx?VID=16

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