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Media Coverage
Refineries Slammed On Safety
April 10, 1999
State Assembly hears public's grievances
Jason B. Johnson, Chronicle Staff Writer

Saturday, April 10, 1999

Politicians and activists, including the angry sister of a Tosco refinery worker killed in a plant explosion, accused oil companies and other industries yesterday of having poor safety standards.

The criticisms -- and calls for tougher state regulation -- came at a special state Assembly hearing in Richmond regarding a string of recent oil refinery accidents in the Contra Costa County. Several speakers said the state is not doing enough to enforce public safety laws.

Speakers at the three-hour hearing cited the death of four workers at the Tosco refinery in Avon, near Martinez, on February 23, and a fire last month at Chevron's Richmond refinery as examples of an industry run amok.

Kathy Alatorre, whose brother Michael Glanzman was killed in a 1997 Tosco accident, said the February 23 fire made her relive her brother's death.

``When I heard of the new explosion my first thought was `They did it again,' '' Alatorre told the committee.

``I would not be allowed to get away with murder. Why are they allowed to hide behind the law?'' she said. ``When safety issues and warnings and concerns are ignored, I feel it's equivalent to premeditated murder.''

Committee chairman Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, said representatives of Tosco, Chevron, and the oil industry declined invitations to attend the hearing.

``The employers who should be here today, who were involved in these accidents, aren't here,'' said Tom Rankin, president of the California Labor Federation.

Richmond City Councilman Tom Butt said his city's efforts to attract new businesses and residents were hampered by the Chevron blast.

``The image of Richmond takes a nose dive,'' Butt said.

Officials from the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration said an investigation into the Tosco explosion is under way. Inspectors are just beginning to pick their way through the ``steel spaghetti'' still littering the Chevron plant.

John Howard, chief of Cal OSHA, told the committee his agency has nearly one-third fewer inspectors than it did in 1980, while the number of businesses and workers within the state has steadily increased.

Several district attorneys said they often cannot bring criminal charges against negligent businesses because the information that is forwarded to them by Cal OSHA arrives so close to the statute of limitations running out.

Jim Provenza of the Los Angeles district attorney's office expressed frustration that roughly $70,000 is the highest amount a negligent company can expect to be fined. He said it costs his office more than twice as much to try such cases as the size of the fine.

He urged that businesses be held criminally liable for certain offenses.

Jim Blazer of the Alameda County district attorney's office said it took him five years to prosecute the owner of an Oakland company whose unsafe practices led to the death of an employee.

``I did get him, but it was a long hard road,'' Blazer said.

Steinberg has introduced a bill that would extend the length of time that a complaint may be filed with the state Division of Labor Standards, and increases the fines companies would have to pay for negligence and create a felony charge for willful neglect.

It is scheduled for special consideration by the labor committee on Wednesday.

Assemblyman Tom Torlakson, D-Antioch, who called for the hearing, said he, Steinberg, and Dion Aroner, D-Alameda, would push Governor Gray Davis to consider hiring more safety inspectors.

They also urged Cal OSHA to speed up the process of referring cases to prosecutors.

The committee will also examine the issue of payouts of workers compensation, which currently caps the amount of money the family of a victim can receive.

California's workers compensation system bars injured employees from suing their employers.

Dependent survivors share a maximum death benefit of $160,000. If they can prove the employer is guilty of serious and willful misconduct, they can ask a workers compensation judge to boost that award by as much as 50 percent.

``We heard some revealing comments. Some were shocking in terms of the extent of the problem,'' said Torlakson.