In 2000, Ultramar Diamond Shamrock purchased its California oil refinery from Tosco Corporation. The oil refinery, located outside of San Francisco in Martinez, California, was known then as the Avon refinery; at the time of purchase it refined 168, 000 barrels of oil each day.
Ultramar Diamond Shamrock chose to change the name of the refinery in an effort to distance it from its past. The new name for the site became "Golden Eagle", and it has kept that name even under its new ownership under Tesoro Refining and Marketing Company.
- In 1999, Communities for a Better Environment - a California environmental protection group - named Ultramar Diamond along with 11 other oil companies in a lawsuit alleging that the oil companies failed to seal leaks in storage tanks at their refineries. The leaks contaminated the drinking waters in California to unsafe levels, according to the lawsuit. Communities for a Better Environment suggested in the suit that the 12 oil companies were responsible for the contamination of water in 10,000 different sites around the state of California.
- Prior to being bought by Ultramar Diamond Shamrock, a fire at the Avon refinery in California in 1997 resulted in damage to asbestos insulation covering six reactors. Prevailing winds dislodged 13 pounds of this friable asbestos and sent it airborne.
Oil Refineries and Asbestos
In situations where extreme temperature or combustion was a concern, the mineral called asbestos was the insulating material of choice in the majority of the 20th century. Oil refineries like Ultramar Diamond Shamrock's facility in Martinez, California, therefore, were usually made with materials containing asbestos. In addition to being heat-proof and non-flammable, asbestos is also resistant to chemical reactions. Because of this, asbestos was utilized in work surfaces, lab equipment and protective garments. Asbestos, however, came with a major downside that was not understood or sometimes deliberately ignored: debilitating and often lethal medical conditions were found to be the result of exposure to asbestos.
For the most part, amosite was the type of asbestos used. When it is mixed with chrysotile, which is impervious to heat and bases but not as resistant to acidic compounds, amosite creates materials that are particularly effective at preventing damage from corrosive substances. This amosite, in the form of asbestos-containing transite, appeared in chemical plants and refineries throughout the country for decades before being outlawed in building materials in the 1970s.
As with cement, asbestos transite could be laminated, sprayed onto pipes and ductwork and molded into working surfaces. This form of asbestos did not pose a health risk so long as it stayed solid. With age, however, this transite becomes prone to crumbling, enabling tiny fibers to flake off into the atmosphere. In other words, such asbestos is friable, a term used for material that is easily crushed. Also, industrial ovens often were constructed with friable asbestos in insulation linings.
Why Friable Asbestos Is Bad
Friable asbestos is dangerous since in this form the particles can be easily dispersed into the atmosphere. Diseases like asbestosis and cancer are known to result from being exposed to airborne asbestos. Another uncommon, but generally deadly, disease linked to asbestos is mesothelioma. The pleural form of the illness, which affects the lining between the lungs and the pleural cavity, is the most common. Ingestion of asbestos fibers, which can occur when the microscopic particles are released into the air and settle on food or drinks, can lead to peritoneal or pericardial mesothelioma.
During the last few decades scientists and researchers have discovered much information concerning the risks that accompany asbestos exposure, and therefore there are stringent rules controlling its use. Asbestos use was more prevalent, however, when Ultramar Diamond Shamrock's refinery in Martinez, California, was in operation. Before present-day laws were put into place, employees often toiled without respirators or other protective gear in spaces where asbestos particles filled the atmosphere.
A Time Bomb
Unlike most workplace injuries, which are easily observed and known about soon after the incident, asbestos-related diseases can take ten, twenty, or even thirty years to appear. With such a lag time between asbestos exposure and the manifestation of symptoms, the worker might not associate the current health problem with work he or she did decades ago. It is extremely important, therefore, that all who were employed by or spent much time near places such as Ultramar Diamond Shamrock's refinery in Martinez, California ask their health care professionals for mesothelioma information. Moreover, all those who shared homes with these people are also at risk, because unless effective decontamination protocols, including the use of on-site showers, were enforced, it was all too common for personnel to bring home asbestos particles on their skin, in their hair, or on their clothes. When detected early, mesothelioma surgery can sometimes be done to improve the quality of life for the patient.Sources
CNN - California Environmental Group Sues Oil Companies
EPA.gov - EPA Chemical Accident Investigation Report
New York Times - Company News; Tosco to Sell California Oil Refinery
University of Wisconsin - Asbestos Containing Material (ACM) - Laboratories and Shops
University of Wisconsin - Asbestos Disposal
Don Williamson and Jon Kaufman, EHS Today - From Tragedy to Triumph: Safety Grows Wings at Golden Eagle