Walz signs refinery safety bill at St. Paul Pipefitters hall

Gov. Walz signed the refinery safety bill into law May 2.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz signed one of labor’s top policy priorities into law Tuesday at the St. Paul Pipefitters’ training center, putting in place new training requirements for tradespeople working at oil refineries in the state.

Surrounded by union members, Walz said the refinery safety measure will help prevent catastrophic accidents like the Husky refinery explosion five years ago in Superior, Wis., and protect communities surrounding Minnesota’s two refineries in St. Paul Park and Rosemount.

“We will not cut corners when it comes to workplace safety in Minnesota,” Walz said on the floor of Steamfitters Pipefitters Local 455‘s apprenticeship training center. “We are adding safeguards and improving training standards, so that workers can return home safe.”

The new law applies to contractors brought in by refineries to perform construction, demolition, installation, maintenance and repair work, and to handle hazardous material. It phases in a minimum threshold of those tradespeople who must have registered apprenticeship training, beginning with 30% by Jan. 1, 2024, and reaching 60% by Jan. 1, 2026.

Refineries whose contracted workforce fails to meet the minimum threshold could incur fines from the Department of Labor and Industry.

David Ybarra, president of the Minnesota Pipe Trades Association, said it was fitting to hold the bill signing at an apprenticeship training center. Building Trades unions’ apprenticeship programs, he said, “represent the gold standard in workforce development,” with “best-in-class” safety training specific to each craft.

Pipe Trades Association President David Ybarra touted the safety training local registered apprenticeships offer.

“This historic bill will help ensure that those working in these inherently dangerous facilities are the best of the best,” Ybarra added.

Workers at the St. Paul Park refinery began sounding the alarm about safety in early 2021, when Marathon locked out members of Teamsters Local 120 for nearly five months, after they refused to accept language that would have allowed the refinery to outsource up to 50 jobs.

At the same time, Marathon began severing ties with local contractors that had regularly provided maintenance and other services at the facility. Building Trades unions warned that local laborers, pipefitters and other tradespeople familiar with the refinery had been replaced with subcontractors from across the country.

Inside the refinery, Teamsters like Dean Benson noticed the difference. During a committee hearing on the bill, he told senators he worked alongside subcontractors who didn’t know how to use critical safety equipment, including Minnesota fire hydrants.

“These guys don’t know what they don’t know, and that’s dangerous in a place like the St. Paul Park refinery,” Benson said.

Workers’ safety concerns gained urgency after a March 20 accident at the Marathon refinery, in which 20,000 gallons of hot asphalt leaked during maintenance repairs, with two workers sustaining severe injuries requiring hospitalization.

Sen. Judy Seeberger (D-Afton), whose district includes the Marathon refinery, said the new law “goes to show how boots-on-the-ground folks can affect legislation.”

“It ensures that the right person has the right training to do the job,” lead House author Rep. Dave Lislegard (D-Aurora) said. “It wasn’t union versus non-union, but it was the unions that drove the conversation to get the results.”

Sen. Judy Seeberger, whose district includes the St. Paul Park refinery, was a lead author of the bill.

Seeberger, the lead Senate author, credited her predecessor in office, current Washington County Commissioner Karla Bigham, with laying the political groundwork for the new law.

But it took a change in Senate leadership to get the bill to Walz’s desk. Two years ago, when Republicans controlled the chamber, Bigham patched together bipartisan support for the measure on the Senate floor, before GOP leaders abruptly withdrew their support as the session drew to a close.

“I’m sorry it took so long for us to get here,” Walz told union members during the signing ceremony. “The idea of worker safety becoming a political football is absolutely atrocious.”

Kera Peterson, president of the St. Paul Regional Labor Federation, said that the issue was a talking point in unions’ member-to-member political campaign in 2022.

“Both of Minnesota’s refineries are in the east metro, and we knew this bill was important to workers and our communities,” she said. “The signed law is proof that the work union members put into helping elect a labor majority in the Senate had a real impact.”

“When I was campaigning for office, I got the message loud and clear that this was something urgently needed to ensure workers in the refinery and the communities around the refinery were as safe as possible,” Seeberger added. “While we cannot guarantee the prevention of accidents, we can ensure that we are doing everything we can to make sure the workers at these facilities have the best training available to them.”

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