By Laura Sanicola
(Reuters) – Inadequate safety standards at Marathon Petroleum’s St. Paul Park refinery in Minnesota have caused avoidable hydrocarbon and chemical releases that pose a threat to the community, a local worker advocacy group said in a report on Sunday, as a lockout of unionized plant workers extends into its third month.
The report by Local Jobs North, a union-backed organization, said that lax safety standards at the plant led to mistakes that could have ignited volatile hydrocarbons. It also cited inadequate installation of safety controls for pipe repair operations and use of poorly constructed scaffolding.
In a statement to Reuters responding to the report, Marathon defended its procedures and commitment to safety.
“The safety of our employees, contractors, business partners, customers and the community is, and always will be, our number-one priority,” Marathon said, adding that “any suggestion that individuals who perform work at our refinery are not trained and qualified to do so is baseless.”
The report, which was reviewed by Reuters, said that Marathon eliminated dedicated safety positions and removed experienced maintenance contractors to save on costs after taking over the plant in 2018. The report was based largely on information from employees who asked to remain anonymous due to fear of retaliation, according to its co-author Kevin Pranis, marketing manager for the Laborers’ International Union of North America branch in Minnesota and North Dakota.
Despite a general improvement in safety metrics at U.S. refineries, there have been some incidents at these facilities in recent years that have killed and injured workers as a result of aging equipment and human error, often by untrained employees.
Marathon said it selects contractors through a comprehensive evaluation process, that they receive training for specific roles and meet federal and state regulations, and that independent auditors vet contractor health and safety programs.
“Our rigorous selection process has resulted in both qualified union-represented and non-represented contractors safely and successfully performing work at the refinery,” Marathon added.
Workers from a local Teamsters union have said they have been locked out of the 104,000-barrel-per-day plant since Jan. 21. They have said they opposed Marathon’s use of more non-union and out-of-state labor, citing safety concerns.
Minnesota Governor Tim Walz and other state officials have urged the refiner to end the lockout due to safety concerns.
The refinery has changed owners four times in the past decade, creating a “hodgepodge” of safety standards, the report said. It called on Marathon to end the lockout, investigate safety concerns, resume using local contractors, restore full funding to the refinery’s fire department and adopt a new contractor policy.
“I’ve seen untrained subcontractors use life-critical safety equipment such as self-contained breathing apparatus incorrectly,” Matt Foss, a 22-year veteran of the plant who is currently locked out, said in the report.
In a separate interview with Reuters, Foss said, “As a firefighter, I feel this is unsafe for myself and the community, especially because we deal with hazardous chemicals regularly.”
Marathon said in its statement that employees and contractors must adhere to safety rules, and that any employee can stop a project if they deem it unsafe. The company also noted that it has an anti-retaliation policy, and that workers are encouraged to report violations.
The report said the conditions at St. Paul Park are significantly less safe than at the nearby Flint Hills Pine Bend refinery owned by Koch Industries.
“The scaffolding standards at St. Paul Park … are at the bare minimum that would keep workers from getting hurt,” Mike Sundsmo, a pipefitter who worked at St. Paul Park and Flint Hills Pine Bend refinery, said in an interview.
Sundsmo added that after being furloughed in March 2020, Marathon stopped using his union for contract work.
The report’s authors arranged the Reuters interviews with Foss and Sundsmo.
(Reporting by Laura Sanicola in New York; Editing by Will Dunham and Daniel Wallis)