Sean Tucker has a lot to say about Regina’s explodey refinery.
It’s been called “The People’s Refinery”: a made-in-Saskatchewan facility, co-operatively owned response to the international Goliaths of the oil industry. Its proper name is the Co-op Refinery Complex.¹ But, you may know it as that massive industrial plant in the city’s north east which has a nasty habit of getting into the news.
Boasting (is that the right word?) two explosions in the last five years and a site evacuation this September due to a chemical leak, it’s no surprise the refinery would end up the subject of a lecture in a series of University of Regina talks on the oil industry.
The series takes a critical look at petroleum extraction, transportation and refining in Saskatchewan. And the Dec. 2 lecture on the CRC’s safety record will be delivered by Sean Tucker, a business administration professor at the University of Regina and an expert in workplace health and safety.
I actually know Sean. He lives nearby and our kids play together all the time. He’s been telling me about his investigation of the refinery as we stand around in playgrounds since he started work on it back in 2012. So, in advance of his talk, I went over to his place and he ran me through an extendo-dance-mix version of his research.
The bulk of what he has assembled consists of public documents — media coverage, court records, safety and emissions reports from government regulators. He’s supplemented this with interviews with people involved in the refining industry.
The story he’s cobbled together is pretty disturbing. While CRC’s PR-line calls every news-making incident at the facility an anomaly (and nothing bad will ever happen again), the fact is the refinery has a history of intermittent periods of serious mishap.
An early example dates back to 1989, four years after a major upgrade of the facility had begun. In February 1989, says Tucker, “You get this [newspaper] report of a plume of foul smelling hydrogen sulphide gas that wafted over a Regina school.
“Gas levels measured inside the school about three kilometres from the refinery were 50 times higher than provincial air quality allowed,” he says. “Dozens of children suffered nausea and headaches.”
Then, in March of the same year, oil ejected from the refinery settled on cars and houses up to 2 km away and in May there was a sulphur fire on the site. It all culminated in a massive explosion and fire on August 27 that lit up the night sky for two hours and required dozens of firefighters to put out.
It’s more than 20 years later, and we’re witnessing another period of difficulty at the CRC as its aging infrastructure weakens.
One of the most notable incidents was the refinery explosion on Oct. 6, 2011 that injured 52 people. The explosion was caused by a corroded pipe that ruptured. The Consumers’ Co-operative Refinery recently pled guilty to a “failure to supervise” that led to the incident and accepted a $200,000 fine.
And while refinery management pledged to do a “deep dive” into the explosion’s cause, the plant’s history since then suggests they could have dived deeper.
On May 15, 2012, there was a fire in a refinery pump-house that cost the CRC $5 million. On Feb. 11, 2013, a fire in a coker unit shot flames 20 metres into the air and cost CRC another $2.5 million. On Dec. 20, 2013, a plume of oil from a leaking valve landed on cars up to 700 metres from the refinery — an incident eerily reminiscent of the oil plume that presaged the refinery explosion in 1989.
Sadly, the oil plume turned out to be a portent, as four days later, on Christmas Eve 2013, a massive explosion rocked the refinery.
I was away at the time but I hear it was pretty horrendous.³ Our editor was in the Broad Street Shopper’s Drug Mart at the time. He thought a truck had rammed the building.
“I’m on that couch there having a nap,” says Tucker. “It was loud here and we’re in Cathedral. There were lots of eyewitness accounts of a massive fireball.”
Luckily, no one was hurt as the refinery was operating with a skeleton crew because of the holiday.
An investigation into the incident revealed that the culprit once again was a corroded, thinning pipe. The report also revealed that a similar pipe ruptured because of corrosion but didn’t explode in December of 2008 — that’s three years before the catastrophic explosion of 2011.
Tucker says that in the time since these incidents, the CRC has been saying all the right things about safety on their website, corporate reports and media statements. And yet, mishaps still occur. There was a leak at a flange connector on Nov. 20, 2014, a small fire on May 15, 2015 and, just this September, there was that evacuation over a chemical leak I mentioned at the top.
Sure, these aren’t explosions or clouds of gas. But Tucker suggests more needs to be done to ensure safety at the CRC.
And he has an idea for a good first step: local oversight.
“We need a public committee in the city that liaises with the refinery and has regular meetings with the refinery staff and the union present. We need public accountability at the refinery,” says Tucker.
“It’s about corporate responsibility. It’s about being a corporate citizen in a city. There’s no regulatory requirement for it, but it would be best practices. There is an example of this already. The refinery in Come By Chance, Newfoundland, they have that there. [The CRC is] the fourth to sixth largest refinery in Canada; they’ve had several safety incidents there. [The CRC is] operating under cooperative values and transparency is implied with a cooperative.
“If a privately owned refinery in Newfoundland can do that, surely ours can too,” he says.
Tucker can tell you so much more. Don’t miss his Dec. 2 talk on the CRC at 1:00 p.m. in room 514 of the University of Regina’s Education Building.
On December 2, 2015, Prof. Sean Tucker delivered a public lecture on the Co-op refinery’s health and safety record. Check out the details here.
¹ That name is a recent rebrand. Before this, the Co-op Refinery Complex was known as the Consumers’ Co-operative Refinery Limited Complex.
² Tucker’s lecture on the Co-op Refinery Complex is the third in the series. The first lecture was Nov 18 with Emily Eaton and looked at regulation and de-regulation in the oil industry. The second talk was Nov 25 with Simon Enoch and looked at petroleum transportation.
³ At their Dec 16, 2013 meeting, city council approved the concept plan for the Somerset neighbourhood, a controversial residential development to be built very close to the Co-operative Refinery Complex. Council gave their approval over the objections of the provincial Ministry of Environment, the Regina Qu’appelle Health Region and the refinery itself: all of whom argued a new neighbourhood should not be built so close to the facility. Council went ahead with Somerset, however, because they felt that CRC was a responsible corporate citizen and the chances of another serious incident were extremely low. Eight days later: Kaboom. Does that count as irony or poetic justice?
Originally published by Prairie Dog Magazine, November 26, 2015