By Erwin Seba
HOUSTON (Reuters) – Employees at Valero Energy Corp’s Port Arthur, Texas, refinery expressed worries about the company’s slow response to keep the coronavirus from spreading there after two workers tested positive, four people familiar with the matter said.
Valero, the nation’s second-largest refiner, started to cut non-essential work and related contractors only this week after starting temperature checks last week – much later than other major U.S. refiners, according to the people.
Valero spokeswoman Lillian Riojas said the company maintains the privacy of employee health information and as such would “not publicize individual cases of COVID-19.”
Riojas, however, outlined Valero’s response in case of a positive test, saying it included compliance and cooperation with the Centers for Disease Control and local health authorities, sterilization of affected areas and communicating with employees in ‘close contact’ with those affected.
That is “followed by implementation of appropriate quarantines, communication with our employees at the site, and, most importantly support of all affected employees.”
Globally, the coronavirus has infected over 1.3 million people and killed more than 74,000. The United States has the most number of cases, at more than 360,000.
The pandemic presents significant challenges to energy facilities like power generation plants, offshore drilling platforms and refineries, where remote operation is often not possible and some staffing is needed to run key units.
Refiners are still meeting customer needs for gasoline and jet fuel that have slowed to a trickle in the United States and globally as the pandemic keeps people at home.
The largest U.S. refiner Marathon Petroleum Corp, and Exxon Mobil Corp, the third largest, cut contract workers, who perform maintenance, two weeks ago.
Temperature checks for people entering refineries began about the same time at major U.S. refineries.
VALERO COVID-19 CASES
But Valero has lagged, the people said.
Unable to work from home, many Port Arthur refinery employees are indoors in shared control rooms and eat in common dining areas, placing them at greater risk of contracting COVID-19, the sources added on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak to media.
The Port Arthur refinery processes 335,000 barrels of crude oil per day, though it has lately been running at reduced rates due to weakened demand for products.
The refinery employs more than 900 salaried and hourly workers. Its about 450 hourly workers are represented by the United Steelworkers union (USW). About 750 contract workers are employed by third-party companies Valero hires to perform maintenance in the refinery.
The first case reported at the refinery was a contract worker who had no contact with employees, but had contact with another contract worker who had access to a building used by employees, the sources said.
Employees were notified on March 28.
Temperature checks were implemented after employees were notified about the first case.
“In my opinion it was a very meager cover-your-ass by a company that has already had a contractor working inside the fence who tested positive for COVID-19,” one of the sources said of the temperature checks.
The second case was an employee, the sources said.
The company notified its employees on April 5, adding the affected person has not been in the refinery since March 27.
The two people and those who worked closely with that person were sent home for 14 days and the places where they were working underwent “enhanced cleaning,” according to the sources.
Officials with USW 13-423 in Port Arthur, which represents workers at the Valero refinery, declined comment.
In other recent incidents, BP Plc said some workers have contracted COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus, on offshore platforms in the Gulf Coast and at a facility in Alaska.
(Reporting by Erwin Seba; editing by David Gaffen and Himani Sarkar)