The Ultramar Diamond Shamrock refinery located in Commerce City, Colorado, has been refining crude oil into fuel products since it was built in 1937. A daily total of 28,000 barrels of crude oil passed through the refinery when it moved under the Valero name. In 2001, Valero and Ultramar Diamond Shamrock merged; the Colorado refinery operated under the Valero brand until 2005, when Suncor purchased the refinery from Valero. The refinery today operates under Suncor with a daily total of 98,000 barrels of oil refined.
Since it signed with the 1998 Petroleum Refinery Initiative by the Environmental Protection Agency, Valero has been spending millions to bring all of its refineries up to environmental regulations for pollution control. Though it did not acquire the Colorado refinery from Ultramar Diamond until 2001, that refinery, too, fell under the initiative.
In 2009, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) fined Suncor more than $130,000 for over two dozen violations for health and safety at the Commerce City, Colorado, refinery. OSHA claimed that the company knowingly avoided conducting required testing for hazardous substances and following proper safety procedures when processing the materials. These fines indicate that employees were put at a serious health and safety risk from the toxicity of the numerous chemicals named in the case.
Oil Refineries and Asbestos
In cases where extreme temperature or fire was a risk, various forms of asbestos were the insulating material preferred by builders for the majority of the 1900s. Oil refineries like the Commerce City, Colorado, Ultramar Diamond Shamrock refinery, therefore, were often made with materials that contained asbestos. Resistance to chemical reactions is one of the other properties of certain types of the fibrous mineral. Floor tiles, insulation, bench tops, even protective garments, therefore, frequently contained the fibrous mineral. There is little doubt that asbestos was superb at protecting against combustion or high temperatures. This ability, however, came with a terrible price in terms of human health.
Much of the asbestos was the form called amosite. Amosite is one of the amphibole forms of the asbestos family of minerals and is commonly considered more prone to result in disease than serpentine asbestos. Used for many years in the form of asbestos transite in laboratories, chemical plants and oil refineries across the US, amosite was finally outlawed in building materials in the 1970s.
Asbestos transite had properties similar to cement; it could be laminated, sprayed onto pipes and ductwork and molded into working surfaces. This form of asbestos did not pose a health risk while it remained solid. Microscopic fibers of asbestos enter into the atmosphere, however, as asbestos-containing transite grows older and becomes prone to crumbling. Asbestos when it is in this state is called friable, a term that is used for materials that are easily crushed. The insulation lining of laboratory and chemical plant kilns also often were fabricated with friable asbestos.
Why Is Friable Asbestos a Problem?
Friable asbestos is hazardous because in this form the particles are readily released into the atmosphere. When someone breathes these fibers, they can harm the lungs, causing asbestosis. Another uncommon, but often lethal, disease caused by asbestos is a type of cancer called mesothelioma. The pleural variety of the illness, which attacks the tissue that lies between the lungs and the pleural cavity, is the most common. Ingestion of asbestos fibers, as happens when the tiny fibers become airborne and land on food or in drinks, can result in peritoneal or pericardial mesothelioma.
Mounting pressure from the medical community, citizen groups and the press forced the creation of laws regulating the use of asbestos. The use of asbestos was much more prevalent, however, when the Ultramar Diamond Shamrock refinery in Commerce City was active. Any asbestos that remains from that period may yet pose a health hazard if people are not careful during demolition and remodeling projects.
Asbestos Exposure - a Hidden Danger
One of the insidious aspects of asbestos exposure is the associated illnesses may take many, many years to manifest - frequently long after a worker leaves the employer. It can also be challenging to identify asbestos-related disorders because the symptoms resemble those of other disorders. Hence, it is very important for those who worked at or spent much time around oil refineries like the Commerce City Ultramar Diamond Shamrock facility to ask their physicians for mesothelioma information. Experimental drugs for treating mesothelioma are being discovered, and early detection provides the patient and his or her doctor the highest chance of overcoming the once deathly form of cancer and utilizing treatments such as mesothelioma surgery when applicable.Sources
CBSNews - Another Big Oil Merger
Colorado Petroleum Association - Colorado Oil and Gas Industry
DOE.gov - Genealogy of Major U.S. Refineries
Erwin Seba, Reuters - Valero to Spend $700 Million to Cut Pollution
University of Wisconsin - Asbestos Containing Material (ACM) - Laboratories and Shops
University of Wisconsin - Asbestos Disposal
Andy Vuong, Denver Post - Suncor Refinery Slammed with OSHA Fines