Fire inspectors and government safety and environmental officials have been called in after complaints about alleged dangerous practices involving flammable and toxic substances and lack of a fire safety plan at Sterling Fuels in west Windsor.
“This could be Lac-Megantic all over again,” said Unifor Local 444 president Dino Chiodo, referring to the explosion and fire in 2013 when a train carrying crude oil derailed in Quebec.
“We are dealing with millions of litres of highly flammable materials,” said Chiodo, who filed the complaint to the city’s fire department Friday. His union represents 17 workers at Sterling.
The fire department was co-ordinating officials from several government bodies, including Ontario’s Technical Standards and Safety Authority, Electrical Safety Authority and ministries of labour and environment, to inspect Sterling’s site Tuesday.
“It certainly raised some significant issues,” deputy fire Chief Andrea DeJong said Monday of the union’s complaint.
The company has been “working through issues” for the last two years, said corporate health, safety and environment manager Joel Gardner, who wasn’t aware of the complaint to the fire department. It has invested “heavily” at the site on safety training, equipment and testing, he said.
But Chiodo detailed a list of complaints Friday. Employees have been welding on tanks that hold potentially highly flammable and toxic substances “while sparks fly all around,” he wrote.
“It creates a significant health and safety risk to the people doing the work and to the nearby community,” he wrote.
The union also believes there is no automatic system to cut oxygen to the giant tanks on the site if fire erupted. The tanks are not clearly marked, either, to identify the contents for firefighters, he wrote.
“I have no confidence that a fire contingency plan has been put in place,” he also wrote. “An evacuation … plan has not been conveyed to the employees for years.”
The company is required to report to the fire department what substances it has on its site, where they are and what is needed to extinguish a fire. That report has to be approved by fire officials. Gardner said the company submitted its plan two weeks ago. But DeJong seemed unaware of that.
“There was one, I think, from a really long time ago,” she said.
The company asked the fire department two weeks ago for information on what it is required to do, she said.
“It was suggested to them that they need to get that in place immediately,” she said. “It should have always been in place.”
The department doesn’t have the resources to regularly inspect companies like Sterling, she said.
“We catch as we can,” she said.
Sterling Fuel offices are shown on Feb. 27, 2017 in west Windsor. DAN JANISSE / WINDSOR STAR
Companies that are covered by federal regulations are usually “very regulated,” DeJong said. But, she said, “It looks like this site maybe has been, I don’t know if it has been lost in the process, I’m not really sure why.”
The fire department is concerned not only for the workers but for the surrounding residential neighbourhood, she said. Sterling has bunker oil, which fuels freighters, on its site, and when that catches fire, “they are very dirty fires and there are houses right there. As soon as (the smoke) hits the air and starts to drift, there are issues in regards to exposure.”
Chiodo cited puddles of what is believed to be fuel, including bunker oil, that has leaked from the bottom of tanks. The union believes the fuel is leaching into the water table and the Detroit River.
The union in interviews also cited a tank that overflowed in January with PSA-1, a highly flammable asphalt curing agent used to make roof shingles. An automatic shutoff didn’t work. The spill can still be seen on the side of the tank, which has remained in service, the union says.
Two other tanks of dyed diesel oil also overflowed last April, according to the union. Again, an automatic shutoff didn’t work. The company used a vacuum truck to suck up the spill, but it couldn’t get all of it.
There have been incidents, Gardner said, but he said, “We’ve investigated and put in corrective actions.”
He wasn’t aware of some of the spills, he said. But none of the tanks are leaking now, and he hasn’t seen puddles of fuel, he said.
The union also alleges high levels of hydrogen sulphide, a highly poisonous and flammable gas that is a byproduct of oil products. The company’s policy for protecting workers is inadequate, the union says, and some equipment purchased to protect employees isn’t being used. But Gardner said multiple consultants have reviewed the way the company handles hydrogen sulphide and concluded it’s sound.
The long list of safety concerns also alleges inadequate plans to rescue workers who fall into the water at the dock or are stuck on top of tanks.
Employees have already refused to do several types of work, including unloading rail cars, dyeing diesel oil and dipping tanks to determine volume. Some work refusals have been going on for almost a year. Federal labour inspectors have been investigating for almost a year and issued three orders. The company’s plan to address one has been approved and it’s working on the other two, Gardner said.