Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Houston refinery shuts off emergency alert system in response to striking USW demands for safety

H-Town's LyondellBasell refinery workers remain among the last of the United Steelworkers union members who have been waiting to go back to work following a national settlement of their strike almost two weeks ago.  Negotiations began again yesterday after a week-long "cooling off" period that the company requested.

Representatives from USW District 227 and LyondellBasell were in the middle of negotiating on (March 14) when the company officials got up and left the room, (USW negotiator Joshua) Lege says. At the request of the company a federal mediator has been involved in the local negotiations from the start. Everyone assumed they were taking a break until the federal mediator came back and told the USW local reps that LyondellBasell's people were leaving and said they needed a "cooling off" period, Lege says.

"We're cooled. We've been cooled down for the last 40 or 50 days on strike, and for the first 30 they wouldn't talk to us at all," Lege says. "This is really turning into a pressure cooker because they won't negotiate with us. They honestly want to break us. They aren't a union company and they don't want a union out there and we believe they're afraid some other sites will start organizing if we get a fair contract here."

But the real news is what's been going on inside that plant over the past few weeks.  Here's Remington Alessi's account from The Anti-Media.

“If something goes wrong at the plant, the guy who saved the company a few bucks on safety equipment still goes home in a nice Cadillac, and I go home in a box,” said Joshua Lege, a striking worker when discussing the disconnect between executives and rank and file employees.

Ordinarily, discussing corporate disregard for safety is heavily discouraged by company policy, but the strike has given employees unusual amounts of media attention. As a result, employees have been able to shed light on what really happens behind the gates of oil refineries, and that reality is quite frightening.

The Emergency Notification System, or ENS, at Houston’s 700-acre LyondellBasell refinery is a warning system installed to notify workers of medical emergencies, fires, and vapor releases. In practice, this is meant to put emergency workers on alert and give anyone nearby the opportunity to protect themselves from potentially hazardous chemical vapors.

The ENS is also how strikers were able to keep track of the significantly increased rate of medical incidents when LyondellBasell brought in untrained workers to replace strikers. For example, a neglected compressor failed and necessitated the flaring off of unidentified chemicals on February 16, 2015.

A USW striker watches as Houston's LyondellBasell refinery flares off
dangerous chemicals after a compressor failed at the plant last month

Flaring is the common and unclean practice of burning off flammable chemicals when pipes and equipment are overpressurized, usually the result of hardware failure. According to refinery workers, if you see a large and sustained flare coming from a refinery, it typically means that repair crews are having a rough day and that you may want to avoid breathing in.

Essentially, the refinery has become much more dangerous in the hands of untrained workers.


In order to reduce the likelihood of striking employees continuing to report incidents, LyondellBasell recently implemented a new policy. ENS speakers near the front gate where picketers stand were disabled. Though they can still be heard far off in the distance, the notifications are too far off for picketers to identify whether or not they indicate the release of dangerous vapors.

In addition to protecting LyondellBasell’s public image, this can seriously endanger strikers and the nearby community, as vapor clouds can travel for miles before dissipating, and often contain hazardous carcinogens. LyondellBasell has managed to find ways to threaten the health and safety of employees even after they’ve left the plant, because if (or more likely when) the plant feels the need to flare dangerous chemicals, picketers can expect to be gassed without warning just like protestors in Ferguson.

Here, demonstrated, is precisely the reason why the USW went on strike in the first place.  It's not as if DuPont La Porte's recent accident that claimed the lives of four workers, or the former BP/now Marathon facility in Texas City a decade ago which killed 15 are aberrations in the nature of petrochemical operations.  No surprise then that Marathon is also a holdout in the national settlement agreement, known as the "pattern".

Meanwhile, Marathon's Texas City plant is nowhere near a local deal, to the point that a federal negotiator has been brought in to help work things out, according to Reuters. USW spokeswoman Lynn Hancock says that she's not sure if Marathon has even presented the national pattern agreement to the local USW group, also District 13-1.

It's not entirely a surprise that things are rough with the Marathon talks. While some local unions, like the Shell Deer Park arm of District 13-1, actually worked out most of the details on local contracts months ago, Marathon and the Texas City union workers were at odds going into the strike, something noted by (USW chief Lee) Medley and every other local union rep we've talked with over the past few weeks. USW is laying the current holdup at the company's door. "The company refuses to offer the pattern unencumbered," W.E. Sanders, sub-director for USW District 13, which covers Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas, explained to Reuters. "The company clearly knows its obligations under the pattern."

Kindly note that none of this has anything to do with climate change concerns, low oil and gas prices threatening the so-called Texas Miracle, or wages and benefits for workers at risk every day on their job, as much so as any police officer or fire fighter.  It's about plant safety; nothing more, nothing less.

Neglect and incompetence is one thing; malfeasance bordering on psychopathy is quite another.  Criminal prosecutors understand the distinctions between manslaughter and premeditated murder.  And so do lowly hardhats who gamble with their life and health at their workplace for the enhanced value benefiting fossil fuel profiteers.

Public pressure must be brought to bear on companies who willfully and maliciously threaten not just their employees, but those who simply live near their plant operations.  And not just the people residing in closest proximity, either.  In a just world, businessmen should not have to be compelled by shame, by law, or by threat of punishment to do what is right and proper, but that's not the world we live in today.

We can continue to allow the greed of corporations to threaten our lives, our health, and our safety, or we can fight back.  Make no mistake; it's going to have to be a fight.

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