Oil refineries across the U.S. reported more than 1,500 injuries among workers over the past five and a half years, according to federal data that indicate which facilities were the most dangerous for employees.
One of the smaller refineries, the United Refining Company in northwest Pennsylvania, had by far the worst safety record, with 119 injuries and no deaths over this period, according to federal records. That total was 10 times the average for a U.S. refinery and 63 percent higher than the plant with the second highest total, the McPherson Refinery in Kansas.
After a series of fires and explosions at U.S. oil refineries in the first half of 2023, Oil & Gas Watch News examined records of injuries and deaths at refineries nationwide. The Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) publishes the data, which are reported to the agency by refinery operators.
From August 2, 2017, to March 3, 2023, 153 refineries nationwide reported a total of 1,539 injuries and seven deaths. Seventeen refineries reported zero injuries or deaths over that period, and another 69 reported five or fewer injuries and no deaths.
Some refinery operators criticized Oil & Gas Watch News’ use of the OSHA data, pointing out that some refineries did not have data on injuries and deaths reported each year from 2017 to 2023. They also took issue with ranking facilities by total number of injuries, rather than dividing the number of injuries by the number of manhours worked at each site.
In emailed questions to OSHA, Oil & Gas Watch asked why the data were missing some years for some refineries on the list and whether that indicated that the refinery had no injuries or deaths that year. A spokeswoman confirmed the agency had received the emailed questions but did not respond before publication.
The data, which end on March 3, do not include a more recent spate of accidents at refineries around the U.S. This includes a May 15 fire at a Marathon petroleum refinery south of Houston that killed one worker, as well as a May 23 fire at a CVR refinery in Wynnewood, Oklahoma, where two employees were injured and one later died of burns suffered at the site.
The facility with the highest number of injuries reported by OSHA was the United Refining Company refinery in Warren, Pennsylvania, a town of less than 10,000 about an hour and a half’s drive from Erie. Over the nearly five-and-a-half-year period, the plant reported 119 injuries and no deaths.
The company also has a track record of environmental problems, according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Enforcement and Compliance History Online (ECHO) database. The EPA reported the refinery had “high priority” violations of the Clean Air Act during all seven quarters from October 1, 2021, through June 30, 2023.
In 2018, the company agreed to a $469,501 penalty as part of a consent assessment with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, which found multiple violations related to failing to maintain equipment and emitting excessive amounts of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and hydrogen sulfide at several points from 2010 to 2016.
A United Refining Company spokesman did not respond to email and phone messages about the plant’s safety record.
A spokeswoman for American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers (AFPM) said in a prepared statement that “nothing is more important to AFPM members than the safety of our people and the communities around our facilities.”
“We take every incident that occurs on our premises seriously, and our worst days are when anyone gets hurt or isn’t able to make it safely home to their families after a shift,” the statement continued. “While our safety record is among the best for U.S. manufacturers, the standard we aim for is zero incidents.”
The second-highest refinery on the list for total injuries was the McPherson Refinery in McPherson, Kansas, owned by global agribusiness cooperative CHS. The refinery produces gasoline and diesel for the company’s Cenex gas stations at 1,500 locations in 19 states. It reported 73 injuries from August 2017 to March 2023.
EPA’s enforcement database also shows the McPherson refinery with high priority Clean Air Act violations during each of the past 10 quarters. EPA records show only one fine of $6,000 in 2019 for air quality violations over the past five years.
The McPherson refinery is planning an expansion to increase its production from 100,000 to 120,000 barrels per day, according to permitting records compiled in the Oil and Gas Watch database. The permit authorizing the expansion would allow the facility to emit an additional 47 tons per year of carbon monoxide, a poisonous gas, as well as over an additional 50 tons combined of smog-forming nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds, which are linked to long-term heart and lung issues. Under the permit for the expansion, the plant is also allowed to emit an additional 17 tons per year of sulfur dioxide, which aggravates chronic lung problems such as asthma and emphysema.
CHS’s senior corporate communications director declined to comment on the data or the company’s safety protocols.
Motiva’s refinery in Port Arthur, Texas, reported the third-most injuries, with 34 and no deaths. The refinery is the largest and among the oldest in North America, with the site’s history dating back to 1902. Motiva is a wholly owned subsidiary of Saudi Aramco, which is nearly 95-percent owned by the government of Saudi Arabia.
A refinery recently sold by former owner BP in Oregon, Ohio, a suburb of Toledo, reported two deaths over the record period, the most of any refinery on the list. It also reported 33 injuries, the same number as Marathon Petroleum’s Galveston Bay refinery in Texas.
A BP refinery in Oregon, Ohio, a suburb of Toledo, reported two deaths over the record period, the most of any refinery on the list. It also reported 33 injuries, the same number as Marathon Petroleum’s Galveston Bay refinery in Texas.
The Toledo refinery can process roughly 160,000 barrels per day but has been idled since a September 2022 fire that killed two brothers who worked at the refinery, according to local media reports. In February, BP announced it had sold its share of the refinery to Canadian company Cenovus Energy. BP spokespeople did not respond to an emailed request for comment.
In 2020, BP agreed to pay $2.6 million in penalties to federal and state authorities to resolve allegations of excessive air pollution at the refinery. The company also agreed to repair or upgrade leaking equipment and fix paperwork issues related to emergency planning and disclosure rules.
Also reporting 33 injuries during the period of time examined by Oil & Gas Watch News was Marathon’s Galveston Bay refinery in Texas City, Texas, south of Houston. Those numbers do not include the death of a 55-year-old machinist who was burned in a May 19 explosion and fire at the facility. The blast sent two other workers to the hospital, according to Reuters.
EPA records show the refinery had “high priority” violations of the Clean Air Act for 12 of the last 12 quarters since 2020. The plant had violations of the Clean Water Act for six of the last 12 quarters, with “significant/category 1 noncompliance” for one of those quarters (April 1 through June 30, 2022). Between January 2013 and April 2023, the TCEQ assessed $687,137 in penalties for violations at the Marathon Galveston Bay Refinery, according to state records.
In May, Marathon announced it had completed an equipment upgrade and modification to process an additional 40,000 barrels per day of crude oil. The permit for the expansion allows the plant to increase by 181 tons per year its emissions of fine particles, which cause heart and lung problems. It also allows it to increase carbon monoxide emissions by 1,306 tons per year, sulfur dioxide by 367 tons per year and volatile organic compounds by 109 tons per year, while decreasing nitrogen oxide emission by 74 tons per year, according to the Oil and Gas Watch database.
A spokesperson for Marathon said in a prepared statement that the company has invested $1 billion into “safety and regulatory upgrades” at the refinery over the last decade and that “the safety of our employees, contractors, and the communities where we operate is our top priority.”
“We have comprehensive systems and processes in place to protect health and safety, and we continually evaluate ways to improve,” Marathon’s statement reads.
Flint Hills Resources reported the sixth-highest number of injuries at its Pine Bend Refinery in Inver Grove Heights, Minnesota, the largest refinery in Minnesota. The refinery produces gasoline, diesel, jet fuel, propane, and asphalt. It reported 32 injuries and no deaths over the record period.
In an email, a spokesman for Flint Hills resources said the data includes COVID-related illnesses in 2020 and 2021. He attributed a recent rise in injuries to “minor soft tissue-related injuries (muscle and joint strains), which has been an increased focus of our employee health and wellness educational strategies.”
“If left untreated, these conditions can become more serious, which is why Pine Bend has made it a priority to focus our efforts in this area and encourage employees to report even the slightest discomfort they may be experiencing in relation to their occupational duties,” the spokesman said.
Ergon Energy’s refinery in Vicksburg, Mississippi, also reported 28 injuries over the record period. The refinery along the Mississippi River makes specialty products related to naphtha and paraffin, two hydrocarbon products derived from crude oil.
An Ergon spokeswoman was the only company representative to dispute the accuracy of the OSHA records of any that responded to questions, saying that the company’s internal records show it had 24 injuries during that period.
Lead photo: United Refining Company's refinery along the Allegheny River in Warren, Pennsylvania. Wikimedia Commons photo.