[At 350-person rally organized by Torrance Refinery Action on the
third anniversary of a giant explosion at Exxon Mobil’s facility
there, people were eager to hear about how Richmond is working to hold
Chevron accountable for its pollution. His piece ref]
[https://portside.org/] 

 REFINERY SAFETY CAMPAIGN FRAYS BLUE-GREEN ALLIANCE  
[https://portside.org/2018-04-02/refinery-safety-campaign-frays-blue-green-alliance]


 

 Steve Early 
 February 21, 2018
CounterPunch
[https://www.counterpunch.org/2018/02/21/refinery-safety-campaign-frays-blue-green-alliance/]


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 _ At 350-person rally organized by Torrance Refinery Action on the
third anniversary of a giant explosion at Exxon Mobil’s facility
there, people were eager to hear about how Richmond is working to hold
Chevron accountable for its pollution. His piece ref _ 

 , 

 

Nothing ignites a local environmental justice campaign more quickly,
in California, than a refinery fire or explosion affecting down-wind
neighbors. Three years ago, an Exxon-Mobil facility was rocked by a
huge explosion in Torrance, a city of 145,000 just south of Los
Angeles.

According to a Justice Department lawsuit, the blast catapulted a
40-ton piece of equipment perilously close to a tank containing 50,000
pounds of hydrofluoric acid, a highly toxic and volatile chemical,
used, with additives, in only two California refineries. If released
in the air in large enough quantity, Modified Hydrofluoric Acid (MHF)
can form a ground-hugging cloud, able to drift for miles. Anyone
exposed to it would suffer choking, searing of the eyes and lungs,
internal organ damage or possible death.

When the U.S. Chemical Safety Board tried to investigate this
“serious near miss,” Exxon-Mobil balked at supplying data on
cost-cutting measures that may have contributed to the accident or the
health impact of showering Torrance residents with so much chemical
ash. Some citizens filed a private lawsuit citing “numerous fires,
leaks, explosions, and other releases of dangerous pollutants” in
“an outdated refinery” located “in a densely populated area.”
State regulators issued 19 citations against the company and assessed
fines of $565,000 for its February, 2015 explosion.

Meanwhile, the narrowly avoided release of a hazardous chemical led to
formation of the Torrance Refinery Action Alliance. With growing local
and regional support, the TRAA seeks to eliminate MHF use, in any
form, at the Torrance refinery, now owned by BPF Energy, and a Valero
refinery in Wilmington, CA.

Last Saturday, on the third anniversary of the Exxon-Mobil accident,
TRAA supporters were out in force, rallying at a downtown Torrance
park and then marching, 350 strong, to the front gates of BPF. The
diverse crowd, ranging from small children to a 97-year old woman,
chanted “Hey, Hey, Ho, Ho, MHF has got to go!”  Many brandished
homemade signs calling for “Community and Worker Safety First” or
identifying themselves as “Teachers for a Ban on MHF.” One
protestor’s timely placard argued that “An MHF accident will kill
even more neighbors than an AR-15!”

In the park, beforehand, elected officials or their representatives
gave rousing speeches in support of a ban. One of the most compelling
was Nanette Diaz Barragan, a past foe of Big Oil in Hermosa Beach,
when she served on the city council there. Elected to Congress in
2016, her 44th Congressional district includes Wilmington. Declaring
herself “willing to stand with you and stand up to the oil
refineries,” Barragan urged Torrance residents to “organize,
mobilize, and not stop until you win this fight.”  Under Trump, she
noted, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) faces deep budget
cuts, threatening its enforcement role and making local watchdog
groups like the TRAA even more essential. (As the _Los Angles Times_
reported last month, EPA inaction on improper storage of hazardous
waste by BPF is already a problem in Torrance—see
http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-torrance-refinery-epa-20180…
[http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-torrance-refinery-epa-20180130-story.html])

At the conclusion of their rally, TRAA organizers proudly displayed a
stack of petitions supporting the MHF ban. They contained the names of
more than 11,000 people reached through door-to-door canvassing,
community forums, and past TRAA participation in regional air quality
board hearings on the MHF issue. More than twenty organizational
endorsers ranged from the Sierra Club to a local post of the American
Legion.

Unfortunately, only 2 out of 7 Torrance city councilors backed a ban
when the issue came to a recent vote. And Big Oil’s clout in
Sacramento has kept a bill banning MHF use from getting out of
committee yet. TRAA’s lobbying focus, at the moment, is the South
Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD), whose board will soon
vote on a rule requiring replacement of MHF with “other alkylation
chemicals already in use at other California refineries, including
Chevron El Segundo,” not far from Torrance.

REFINERY LABOR CONCERNS

Despite the presence of rank-and-file teachers and nurses, and the
Steelworker union background of TRAA rally chair Steve Goldsmith, the
wing of refinery labor most committed to blue-green alliance building
was MIA last Saturday. Local 675 of the United Steel Workers (USW),
which aided the TRAA initially, is no longer allied with the group
because of BPF membership concern about the employment impact of a MHF
ban.

At the February 17 protest, TRAA President Sally Hayati insisted that
it’s “highly unlikely that either refinery [affected by the
proposed ban] will be shuttered or abandoned.” Leaders of the USW,
locally and nationally, strongly disagree. In an op-ed piece for the
Torrance-based _Daily Breeze _published last Fall,  Local 675
secretary-treasurer Dave Campbell, USW national oil industry
bargaining chair Kim Nibarger, and union safety director Mike Wright
warned that a forced conversion of the Torrance refinery to using
sulfuric acid, as an alkylation catalyst, would create new risks for
the community. Plus, it would require a “shut down of a year or
more, significantly raising the price of gasoline in California, as
occurred when the plant closed for repairs after the explosion.”

The union officials raised the “real possibility” of a permanent
BPF closure in Torrance, with the result that “600 family-supporting
direct jobs and 500 contractor jobs would disappear, the town and
school district would lose millions of dollars in annual tax receipts,
and gas prices would rise.” The USW representatives praised BPF for
being more safety-minded and a better employer than the previous owner
(although Exxon-Mobil left a low bar there). They recommended waiting
for further testing, by Chevron, of a refining method utilizing
“ionic liquid,” which they called “the best and safest way to
go.”

Unfortunately, it will “take a couple of years to determine whether
this process is economically viable.” Until then, the USW suggests,
“the best path forward is to keep calm”—a recommendation not
popular among the Torrance marchers I met last weekend.  At least one
protestor, marine biologist and former public school teacher Mark
Friedman, believes that the USW stance reflects a management attempt
“to co-opt labor” through paying “refinery workers higher
wages…making them aristocrats within the labor movement.”  In
_Random Lengths News, _a San Pedro-based alternative newspaper,
Friedman has called for “no job loss, no layoffs; full pay for all
workers at union wages during shutdown and conversion to the safest
refining process. “

But, unlike Friedman, Dave Campbell is tasked, by the USW members who
elected him, with making “just transition” demands into more than
just rally rhetoric. That’s no easy job in an industry which has
long under-mined worker solidarity through contracting out and
labor-management partnering with always compliant building trades
unions. As Campbell explained to me when I was researching the history
of Chevron Richmond labor relations, Big Oil’s strategy has always
been divide and conquer—pit one wing of refinery labor against the
other, and, where possible, both against the community.

Within locals that used to be part of the Oil Chemical and Atomic
Workers, and are now affiliated with the USW, management has two ways
to keep local leaders in line. One method is stirring up rank-and-file
opposition to elected officers viewed as too enviro-friendly. And,
since many oil refineries are open shops, local managers can also
encourage members skeptical about blue-green alliance building to stop
paying dues to the USW, when their contract language gives them
periodic opportunities to do so. (The Supreme Court’s pending
decision in the _Janus _case may soon expose unions, representing
public employees in non-“right-to-work” states, to this same
membership drop-out threat on a much wider scale.)

Throughout the country, refinery neighbors had good reason to applaud
the safety-related demands made by the USW three years, when thousands
of its members were striking or otherwise campaigning for a new
national oil industry contract. More recently, a USW led labor and
environmental coalition got the state of California to adopt the
nation’s strongest refinery safety regulations.  Nevertheless, the
threat of job blackmail—and fear of job less—remains a potent
check on labor organization behavior involving workers engaged in the
extraction, refining, transportation, or use of fossil fuel.  Who was
on the march in Torrance last weekend—and who was not—reveals much
about the real-life difficulty of getting labor and community on the
same page in refinery towns, near and far.

Join the debate on Facebook
[https://www.facebook.com/CounterPunch-official-172470146144666/] 
  
More articles by:Steve Early
[https://www.counterpunch.org/author/friarl/] 

_STEVE EARLY has been active in the labor movement since 1972. He was
an organizer and international representative for the Communications
Workers of American between 1980 and 2007. He is the author of four
books, most recently Refinery Town: Big Oil, Big Money and The
Remaking of An American City from Beacon Press. He can be reached at
[log in to unmask]

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