Chevron refinery background
Tuesday, Aug. 7
Monday’s fire at the Chevron oil refinery in Richmond began with a hydrocarbon leak so small that the facility’s emergency response team at first thought it posed little threat to the community, a company representative said Tuesday.
But even as the team discussed what to do next, the leak from the refinery’s No. 4 Crude Unit suddenly swelled. The emergency response crew evacuated. The leak ignited and the fire that followed spewed black, noxious smoke across the East Bay and forced Richmond residents to flee indoors.
Now some union officials question whether refinery operators waited too long to try to stop the leak before it blew.
It’s one of the questions that will be explored by regulatory experts who have sealed off the damaged unit pending an investigation into the latest fire to hit the 110-year-old refinery on Richmond’s western edge. It is unclear exactly what steps Chevron took between discovery of the small leak, around 4:15 p.m., and the moment it ignited at 6:30 p.m.
The leak at first appeared to be no more than “20 drips per minute,” said Mark Ayers, the refinery’s chief of emergency services. It was located at a pipe that siphons hydrocarbons out of the crude unit to be processed into different kinds of fuel.
“It’s really not something in that time frame that we felt had any chance of impacting the community,” Ayers said. “It wasn’t visible, you wouldn’t be able to see it or smell it. So at that point in time, there was really nothing that we could advise the community to do.
“Once that leak grew,” he added, “we followed the exact processes that we were supposed to do.”
Too long a delay?
But a refinery safety expert for the United Steelworkers union, which represents workers at the plant, said Tuesday that the company should have shut down the crude unit immediately.
“From the time they did see the leak, they debated what to do,” said Kim Nibarger, who has investigated refinery accidents nationwide. “It was not so much whether to fix the leak, it was about what could they do to keep the line running and get it fixed.”
Nibarger based his opinion on Monday’s incident after discussions with union representatives at the refinery. The choice, he said, should have been clear.
“When you have hydrocarbons outside the pipe, you are no longer running at a normal condition. It’s time to shut the thing off and fix it, not to try to figure out a way around it.”
The equipment that spawned the leak, the crude unit, is the heart of a refinery. It heats crude oil to temperatures above 700 degrees, vaporizing most of the crude and allowing it to separate into different components that have different boiling points. Other units within the refinery then process each of those components into different products, including gasoline, jet fuel and diesel.
Chevron’s Richmond refinery can process 257,000 barrels of oil per day, making it the state’s third largest.
The refinery’s operators allowed a small “control fire” to continue Tuesday, burning off the remaining fuel in the crude unit. Although the unit has been shut down, other parts of the refinery continue to run, Chevron representatives said Tuesday. Chevron, based in San Ramon, has not yet estimated the dollar loss.
Investigators with California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health have issued an order that prevents refinery workers from entering the area around the crude unit without the division’s approval.
Cal-OSHA’s investigators will interview workers who were present at the scene, examine the refinery’s safety protocols and perhaps test some of the machinery involved, said spokeswoman Erika Monterroza.
Depending on what the situation is, they will make a determination as to whether there were violations of California’s health and safety standards, she said. Violations could lead to fines. By statute, the division has six months to complete its investigation.
The Richmond refinery has suffered a series of fires and explosions over time, straining relations with its neighbors.
In January 2007, the seal on a pump in the crude unit failed, igniting a fire that lasted almost 10 hours. An explosion in March 1999 unleashed a cloud of fumes that sent more than 1,200 Richmond residents to emergency rooms, complaining of labored breathing and irritated eyes. In April 1989, a fire fueled by hydrogen leaking from a pipe seriously burned three people.
Other California refineries have experienced similar – or worse – problems. In 1999, four workers at the Tosco refinery in Martinez burned to death during a repair job on a crude-oil distillation tower. The refinery is now owned by Tesoro.
For years, Chevron has wanted to upgrade its Richmond refinery – replacing old equipment, increasing the amount of gasoline it can produce and giving the plant more flexibility in processing different grades of crude oil. But those plans have been blocked by residents and environmentalists, who say the changes could increase air pollution from the plant. Although the Richmond City Council approved the renovation project in 2008, a Contra Costa County Superior Court judge later blocked it, saying Chevron’s environmental impact report didn’t answer key questions.
The crude unit at the center of Monday’s fire was not one of the pieces of equipment that would have been replaced in the planned renovation, said several sources involved in the dispute.
National safety issues
Monday’s fire added to a national trend for refinery accidents that hasn’t improved for the last five years, according to an industry report.
The safety record at refineries got better between 2000 and 2005, but has flattened out since 2006, according to a 2012 summary of occupational injuries and illnesses published by the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers, which represents nearly all the nation’s refiners.
Charlie Drevna, president of the organization, acknowledged that refinery safety incidents ceased declining and added, “Quite honestly, it had a slight uptick a couple of years ago.” But he said the industry is working hard with the unions and the government to make improvements.
“As an industry, we were able to bring it down to a level. When you compare us to other industries we are doing OK. But OK is not good enough. Our pledge is to minimize these things. To try to eliminate them,” he said.
San Francisco Chronicle staff writer Henry K. Lee contributed to this report. David R. Baker and Jaxon Van Derbeken are San Francisco Chronicle staff writers. Eric Nalder is an investigative reporter for Hearst Newspapers. E-mail: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com