Refinery worker deaths concern Wynnewood residents

A Sept. 28 explosion that killed two has some questioning safety of facility that serves as town's lifeblood.
BY PHILLIP O'CONNOR poconnor@opubco.com Published: January 28, 2013

Beverly Badgley said she never worried about the massive 90-year-old oil refinery that looms at the edge of this rural town, despite the occasional fire, explosion or evacuation order.

The hulking structure of tanks, towers and tubes is part of the community fabric, its hisses, groans and roars a steady and familiar soundtrack to daily life.

“I never questioned the operation of it,” said Badgley, 53, a lifelong resident. “You assume that it is a good, safe place to work.”

For some who live here, those perceptions changed Sept. 28 when a boiler in the refinery exploded and killed two local workers, including Badgley's 34-year-old son, Billy Smith, a married father of four.

Also killed was Russell Mann, 45, of Wynnewood, who died at the OU Medical Center 18 days after the explosion. He left behind a wife, two sons and two granddaughters.

Now, some in this town of about 2,500 residents are voicing concerns about the refinery's new owner, a lax culture of safety, and whether some workers may be reluctant to complain for fear of losing their good-paying jobs or seeing the refinery that serves as the town's lifeblood close.

“The refinery is important to this town and it's important to these young families,” said Badgley, who also serves as the city clerk. “But it shouldn't be an either-or. We should be able to have that refinery and be able to send our kids and our friends and our neighbors down there and know they're working in as safe an environment as can be provided.”

A spokeswoman for Texas-based CVR Energy, Inc., the refinery owner, declined comment, citing an ongoing investigation by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. An OSHA spokesman said such investigations can take up to six months.

Days after the explosion, company CEO Jack Lapinski issued a statement, saying CVR remained “committed to providing a safe working environment for our employees and contractors.”

In December, the company announced that an internal investigation had identified the cause of the explosion as a combination of human error and problems in operating procedures and training. The investigation found no mechanical problems with the boiler.

Economic engine

Wynnewood sits at the junction of U.S. Highway 77 and State Highway 29 in Garvin County, about 70 miles south of Oklahoma City.

The refinery, one of five operating in the state, has a 70,000 barrels-per-day capacity and produces gasoline, diesel fuel, military jet fuel, solvents and asphalt, according to the CVR website.

It is the largest and best-paying employer in the area, locals say, and provides a large percentage of the property taxes that fund the Wynnewood School District. And though it sits just outside Wynnewood's city boundary, the refinery generates a large percentage of the sales tax collected by local businesses.

The town's median family income is about $35,100, compared to $43,200 statewide, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

There is no known plan to close or move the plant, but previous owners threatened to do so in the past, residents say.

“If it shut down, the town would still be here, but it wouldn't flourish like it is,'' said Mayor Mike Perry, while sitting in his City Hall office just blocks from the refinery's main gate. “The economy would certainly suffer.”

The refinery has had several accidents over the years, including five fires since 2006, and has paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in OSHA fines. Several contractors also have been killed at the site, but it's been several decades since a local worker died on the job, local officials said.

“We know it's potentially dangerous. You learn to live with it,” said Perry, 66, also a lifelong resident.

Still, he acknowledged that September's explosion and the deaths of two men well known in the community created greater concern about the refinery than previous incidents.

“If you know somebody who dies in an accident, people are naturally going to be concerned with the safety of it,” Perry said.

Search for answers

The accident occurred at what was to have been the start of a scheduled major overhaul of the refinery that takes place about every four years. The “turnaround” was expected to take about 40 days. In addition to the normal “home crew” of about 270 employees, about 1,500 to 1,800 temporary subcontractors are on site during a turnaround, providing a big boost to the local economy.

At Trail's End BBQ & Grill, which sits within view of the refinery, owner Pam Kibler said the line of people at the order counter at lunch time would sometimes be 20 deep.

“We were pretty ragged by the time turnaround was done,” Kibler said.

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