ANACORTES, Wash. (AP) — An explosion and fire at a Washington state oil refinery shook homes and shot flames into the night sky early Friday, killing four people and critically injuring three others.
The fire struck the Tesoro Corp. refinery in Anacortes, about 70 miles north of Seattle on Puget Sound, at about 12:30 a.m., the company said. The blaze occurred while maintenance work was being performed and was extinguished in about 90 minutes.
Three employees are hospitalized with major burns over the majority of their bodies, including a 36-year-old woman and two men, 34 and 41, said Susan Gregg-Hanson, a spokeswoman for Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. A 29-year-old woman died of her burns at the hospital. The other three killed were men, according to the Skagit County coroner.
The blast was the biggest fatal refinery accident since a 2005 explosion at a BP American refinery in Texas killed 15 people and injured another 170, authorities said. It comes after Tesoro was fined $85,700 a year ago for 17 serious safety and health violations.
All employees have been accounted for and investigators are trying to determine the exact cause of the blaze, said Tesoro spokesman Greg Wright in San Antonio. The extent of the damage is unknown, but parts of the refinery continue to operate, he said.
Most of those injured or killed were members of the United Steelworkers Local 12-591, which represents about 200 of the 300 employees at the refinery, said Brian Ricks, financial secretary of the union local.
Nearby residents, some five miles from the complex, called Washington TV stations after midnight with reports of an explosion, saying flames were being blown by high winds.
“My house shook, big time,” Lisa Wooding told KOMO-TV. “There were flames. First high, then low to the ground and broad.”
Greg Cummings, from Abbottsford, B.C., had just gone to bed at the RV park across the bay from the refinery when he heard a loud whoosh and saw the flames.
“I thought it was a terrorist attack,” he said.
Kelly Amos, of Coeur D’Alene, Idaho, said he and his wife were awoken from inside their travel trailer.
“It shook the trailer really good,” Amos said. When he looked outside, he saw flames shooting as high as the refinery’s tower. He said the fire died down considerably within a half hour or so.
The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board is sending six people to investigate. Spokesman Daniel Horowitz said the board is “extremely concerned about safety in this sector” after a number of accidents and safety violations found at refineries by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
The blast occurred in the naphtha unit of the refinery. Naphtha is a volatile, flammable liquid derived during the refining process, and the unit had undergone maintenance and was in the process of returning to operation — a “typically dangerous” step of turning up heat and pressure, Wright said.
“It’s a volatile process,” Wright said. “We are diligent about being safe.”
San Antonio-based Tesoro Corp. is an independent refiner and marketer of petroleum products. The Anacortes refinery, which Tesoro has owned since 1998, can refine about 130,000 barrels of crude daily, according to the company. The U.S. Energy Information Administration Web site ranks it as the 59th largest refinery in the nation.
It mainly processes Alaska North Slope crude and makes gasoline, diesel and jet fuel, mostly for Washington and Oregon.
Wright said he can’t say yet how long production will be affected, but Tesoro likely can make up the loss by ramping up production at its other West Coast refineries or buying from others.
Bruce Smith, Tesoro’s chairman, president and CEO, called it a sad time for the company and said they were working quickly to ensure the safety of employees, contractors and the community.
There are four large refineries in northwestern Washington. This is the first refinery fire in Anacortes since 2007, when a blaze damaged a storage tank at the Shell Puget Sound Refinery and three people received minor injuries. Tesoro had a previous fire in 2002, with no injuries.
Six refinery workers were killed in an explosion and fire at the Equilon Puget Sound Refinery in Anacortes in 1998.
Tesoro said the Washington Department of Labor and Industries had been notified about Friday’s fire.
The department fined Tesoro in April 2009 after finding serious violations, defined as those with potential to cause death or serious physical injury. Inspectors found 150 instances of deficiencies, including where the company didn’t ensure safe work practices for energy control and failed to update safety information when changes where made to technology and equipment.
The company has appealed the decision, said LNI spokesman Hector Castro.
The state inspections were part of a national effort to inspect all petroleum refineries in the United States after the 2005 explosion in Texas.
Of the 18 major accident cases the chemical safety board is examining, at least seven are refineries, Horowitz said. Yet there are only 150 refineries in the country and tens of thousands of other chemical plants.
“Almost half our accidents, the serious ones, are at refineries,” Horowitz said. “We’re seeing a disproportionate number of serious accidents at refineries.”
Contributing to this report were Associated Press Science Writer Seth Borenstein in Washington, D.C.; and Doug Esser, Phuong Le and Donna Gordon Blankinship in Seattle.