Shell Oil Refinery

The Shell Puget Sound Refinery in Anacortes, Washington, was formerly known as Equilon. Dating back over half a century, the facility got its current name in 2003. It is currently operated by the Shell Oil Products Group U.S., an American subsidiary of transnational corporate megalith Royal Dutch Shell.

Refinery History and Statistics

The refinery was originally built on Fidalgo Island's March Point in 1958. At that time, the facility was owned and operated by Texaco, which was taken over by Shell in 1998. Today, 500 employees process approximately 143,000 barrels of crude each day, most of which is shipped in from Alaska's North Slope. Finished products include motor and jet aircraft fuel as well as LP gas.

Carelessness

On 24 November 1998, a coking unit explosion killed six employees. A later investigation revealed that the management had ordered a premature restart of the unit after it had been shut down due to a power outage. In May 1999, the corporate owner-operator at that time, Equilon, agreed to a $4.4 million settlement with the State of Washington, the City of Anacortes and the families of the victims.

In 2008, however, the State of Washington discovered over 20 safety violations, indicating that very little had changed under Shell ownership.

Asbestos and Chemical Plants

In the greater part of the 20th century, when excessive heat or flame was a danger, asbestos was used as an insulator. Facilities such as Shell Puget Sound Refinery in Anacortes, Washington, therefore, were usually built using asbestos-containing materials. In addition to being flame-proof as well as heat-proof, some forms of amphibole asbestos are also particularly resistant to chemical reactions. Due to the type of work that occurs at chemical plants, asbestos, therefore, appeared not only in plant structures, but also in safety garments, coating materials and counter tops. And although the asbestos worked well in safeguarding against fire damage and in protecting people and equipment from high heat, it also exposed people who used it or worked around it to significant health risks.

Much of the asbestos was the form called amosite. Amosite is one of the amphibole forms of asbestos and is commonly thought to be more prone to result in health problems than the serpentine form. This amosite, in the form of asbestos transite, appeared in chemical plants and laboratories throughout the US for many years before being banned for construction purposes in the 1970s.

Asbestos transite could be molded into working surfaces, laminated and sprayed onto pipes and ductwork just as cement could. As long as it was solid, this form of asbestos offered no immediate risk. Tiny particles of asbestos enter into the air, however, as this transite gets older and becomes prone to crumbling. Asbestos when it is in this condition is considered friable, or able to be reduced to powder by hand pressure alone. The insulation lining of industrial kilns also frequently contained friable asbestos.

The Problem with Friable Asbestos

Asbestos particles, when friable, can be readily released into the environment. Breathing asbestos particles can lead to conditions like cancer. Another uncommon, and generally lethal, asbestos-related disease is a type of cancer called mesothelioma. The pleural variety of the illness, which affects the tissue that lies between the lungs and the pleural cavity, is the most common. When those airborne particles settle on food or in drinks and are subsequently ingested, pericardial or peritoneal mesothelioma can result, though they are less common than pleural mesothelioma.

Mounting pressure from activist groups, the media and the medical community led to rules controlling how to use asbestos. The use of asbestos was more commonplace, however, in the 1950s when plants such as Shell Puget Sound Refinery in Anacortes, Washington, began operating. And in way too many instances people worked with asbestos-containing materials when they did not have the benefit of respirators or other safety gear.

The Hidden Danger of Asbestos

Unlike most job-related injuries, which are easily observed and known about soon after the causing incident, asbestos cancer may take many, many years to manifest. The symptoms of asbestosis and mesothelioma - a chronic cough, chest pain and dyspnea - may easily be confused with those of other disorders. People that worked at or spent much time near plants like the Anacortes Shell Puget Sound Refinery should, accordingly, notify their doctors about the chance of exposure to asbestos. Such information can assist physicians to make a timely diagnosis; especially with mesothelioma, the sooner it is diagnosed, the higher the chances of survival or at least of improved quality of life.

Sources

HistoryLink - Explosion and fire at the Equilon Puget Sound Refinery in Anacortes Kill Six Refinery Workers on November 25, 1998
http://www.historylink.org/index.cfm?displaypage=output.cfm&file_id=5618

Manta - Shell Puget Sound Refinery
http://www.manta.com/c/mmcnjq0/shell-puget-sound-refinery

Washington State Department of Labor and Industries - L&I Focus on Petroleum Refinery Safety Finds Multiple Violations at Equilon (L&I News, 25 June 2008)

University of Wisconsin - Asbestos Containing Material (ACM) - Laboratories and Shops
http://www.uwm.edu/Dept/EHSRM/ASB/acmimages3.html

University of Wisconsin - Asbestos Disposal
http://www.uwm.edu/Dept/EHSRM/HAZEXCEPTIONS/a.html

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