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BP Whiting Refinery suffers second major malfunction this week
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BP Whiting Refinery suffers second major malfunction this week

WHITING | The BP Whiting Refinery suffered its second major malfunction in three days after a strike entered its third week.

A leak took place Wednesday morning at Pipe Still 11C at the refinery, where about 1,100 United Steelworker union-represented workers walked off the job over staffing and safety issues.

The refinery continues to produce gasoline and other fuels for customers, and there was no impact on the community, BP spokesman Scott Dean said.

"The team responded to the event in a professional, by-the-book manner, exactly like the USW workers would have," Dean said.

Energy-industry intelligence service Genscape first reported Pipestill 11C, the second-largest crude-distillation unit at the refinery, got shut down after a malfunction Wednesday morning. The unit can produce up to 110,000 barrels per day, while the refinery as a whole has a capacity of about 413,000 barrels per day. 

Repairs are underway. No estimate is available for how long the unit will be down, Dean said.

"It is one of the two smaller units of that type at the plant," Dean said. "There are three of them in total." 

Picketing USW workers said they heard evacuation sirens going off at the refinery at around 7:30 a.m. Wednesday. A fire truck drove to Pipestill 11C, where refinery firefighters laid down absorbent boom. Striking workers said the vapor that was likely leaking was dangerous and could ignite. Union members said a massive flare-up early Monday morning and the pipe still malfunction Wednesday morning showed that replacement workers could not safely operate the refinery in their absence.

Since local oil workers joined national picket lines on Feb. 8, the former Standard Oil refinery has been run by about 800 workers who are not represented by the USW, as well as retired BP employees who have been filling in as replacement workers. The USW represents about 57 percent of the workforce at the refinery, which is the largest in the Midwest and was built by John Rockefeller in 1889.

Talks ongoing between union, oil companies

BP and the USW met again to bargain Wednesday, but no one was available for comment on whether any progress was made. National talks have been on hold since the USW rejected the seventh contract offer last week, according to Shell, which represents all the oil companies in the national talks.

"The central issue standing in the way of a settlement is not safety or fatigue, nor is it even about healthcare or wages, as the union claims," Shell said in a statement.

"Those things are important to all of us, and it's important to share that we have engaged in productive negotiations regarding each of these issues. The central issue of the USW's national leaders is their continued demand that Shell replace routine maintenance contractors with USW-represented employees."

Oil companies could have to resort to layoffs when times get tough if they can't hire contractors on an as-needed basis, the company said. USW and North America's Building Trade Unions issued a joint statement Wednesday saying the USW still wanted union contractors to do new construction, turnaround, shut-down and specialty equipment work at oil refineries, but not the daily maintenance and repairs that USW-represented workers have historically done.

"USW officials acknowledge the safety qualifications of NABTU contractors and acknowledge that those contractors that employ and are signatory with North America's Building Trades Unions, utilize the best trained, most skilled and safest craft workers in the world," the union said in a statement.

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Business Reporter

Joseph S. Pete is a Lisagor Award-winning business reporter who covers steel, industry, unions, the ports, retail, banking and more. The Indiana University grad has been with The Times since 2013 and blogs about craft beer, culture and the military.

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