Labor-backed report finds lax safety at St. Paul Park refinery

The St. Paul Park refinery on the Mississippi River
The St. Paul Park refinery on the Mississippi River in St. Paul Park, Minn., acquired by Marathon Petroleum, seen in 2018.
Photo by Tony Webster | Courtesy of Marathon Petro | Creative Commons license 2018

Inadequate training and a lax safety culture make the Marathon Petroleum St. Paul Park refinery a danger to its workers — and potentially to the surrounding community — according to a report released Tuesday by a union group currently in the midst of a labor dispute with Marathon.

“What we uncovered was frankly scary,” said Lucas Franco, a co-author of the report. “Our report details dozens of apparent safety lapses that could pose a threat to workers, the environment and potentially surrounding communities. Our interviews uncovered numerous reports of avoidable safety lapses that were clearly the result of poor management or use of poorly trained workforce or both.”

The findings are based on interviews with current and former employees at the refinery. Matt Foss, who’s worked at the site for more than two decades in various safety and fire protection roles, said some contract workers hired by Marathon are not being properly trained in safety protocols.  

“I and many of my coworkers are worried about the decline in safety and training standards at this facility,” Foss said. “A small mistake can have catastrophic consequences. These are mistakes that not only put refinery workers at risk, they also expose neighboring communities to a disaster.”

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Foss said the company had eliminated dedicated safety positions at the site, including fire safety workers, but did not follow through on promises to maintain a full-time fire department on site. 

“They’re willing to take that risk, they cut the cost. Getting rid of the full time fire department was a big mistake,” Foss said. “The state of Minnesota [and] the surrounding communities don’t deserve that.” 

Newport, Minn., City Council member Kevin Chapdelaine, who lives near the refinery, said he was concerned about what he’d read in the report. 

“I’m very concerned that the emphasis on safety and training that I knew when I worked in the St. Paul Park refinery is today being overshadowed by increasing profit margins.” Chapdelaine said. “The citizens of my neighborhood are being put at risk. Neighborhoods’ fire department personnel are being put at risk.”  

Report authors said they want an investigation into the refinery by state agencies. They’re also asking for Marathon to change its practices and for lawmakers to introduce regulation to uphold safety. 

In an emailed statement, Marathon spokesperson Jamal T. Kheiry said claims of inadequate training in the report are baseless. He also pointed to awards the St. Paul Park refinery won for safety in 2020 and 2019.

“To constantly instill and reinforce our culture of safety and integrity, we use a combination of best practice-based operational standards, documented work processes, proven management systems and behavior-based programs designed to train, protect and empower our employees and contractors,” Kheiry said.