When I got home from work today, I saw an article about a 50,000 gallon waste water spill at plant of a subsidiary of Exxon Mobil called XTO Energy.
The reactions were, unfortunately, as expected. It’s almost as if people believe that the CEO of Exxon Mobil was sitting in his $1 gagillion office smoking his cigar saying, “And I would have gotten away with it if it weren’t for the meddling EPA!”
No, the board of directors did not send a memo down asking for a waste water dump into the nearby river. That’s not the way these things happen despite the inconvenience for the anti-free market or anti-oil narrative.
I’m an engineer in the petrochemical industry. I work at a big plant that has a lot of equipment that could kind of ruin your day a bit if you weren’t careful. As long as you follow company and industry policies and use your head a bit, you’ll be fine. Companies put standards and procedures in place for doing just about everything. If I need to “engineer” something, I don’t grab a textbook and start exploring all of the possible solutions. No, I go to my company’s engineering standards and industry standards, such as API (American Petroleum Institute), ASME (American Society of Mechanical Engineers), etc. While there definitely is some decision-making on my part, anything that is done at the plant is carefully guided by some sort of controls.
In other words, if it’s not safe, it’s not going to happen. Of course, there is risk involved in a lot of things that go on. Sometimes in order to enter a vessel it needs to be purged, usually with nitrogen. If you breathe in a nitrogen-rich atmosphere, you’re pretty much guaranteed to die. So steps are taken to bring the chances of something happening down to zero as close as possible. You manage risk. It’s similar to how insurance companies do business.
Accidents still happen even though they are preventable. There was a fertilizer plant explosion in Texas recently, a welder was killed when a tank exploded several weeks ago, and now we have this spill of waste water. How do these accidents happen?
Usually when something goes wrong, there was a series of bad decisions and/or assumptions made, usually by lower-level employees. These decisions could be made because it’s near the end of the shift and people want to get home, there could have been a miscommunication, someone may not have knowledge about a certain task or process and then act in ignorance, a mechanic might think he knows better than the engineer (or an engineer might arrogantly ignore field experience), etc. There are a myriad of reasons and accident usually only occurs when there’s the perfect storm situation.
We take safety very seriously where I work. It’s frustrating and sometimes downright insulting when people say otherwise.
One argument I’m bound to hear is that while upper plant and corporate management may not be directly to blame, they are ultimately responsible for the actions of their employees below them. This certainly isn’t a false statement. However, to suggest that they would be anything other than upset at the event is preposterous and you would not call for an ethics investigation of the CEO of Burger King if a picture of a burger assembly line member posted a picture of himself spitting into the ketchup bins. A plant may end up paying a fine to the government after an event, but they also face the wrath of the insurance companies and private code organizations who could take away their approvals of their businesses if they determine that the mistakes warrant a disassociation.
I’m not suggesting that businesses are perfect and shady things do happen (usually tied to some government-enacted laws or regulations), but calling this a case of corporate greed is a sorry attempt at stirring up hatred for free markets and, in this case, the oil companies.