By Jaxon Van Derbeken
San Francisco Chronicle staff writer
Gov. Jerry Brown has formed an interagency working group on refinery safety after questions emerged following a fire at Chevron’s Richmond refinery about whether California is diligently inspecting oil plants, officials said Tuesday.
“We are looking at how we could make the process better going forward,” said Kurt Schuparra, the state’s assistant labor secretary. “The process involves coordinating the activity of a number of different agencies, working together. We are trying to be proactive.”
After a fire caused by a corroded pipe badly damaged the Richmond refinery Aug. 6, The Chronicle learned that the state Division of Occupational Safety and Health had averaged less than 50 hours per planned inspection at the state’s 15 oil refineries over the previous decade. That was well below the 1,000-hour average of a three-year federal inspection drive across the country.
The federal inspections resulted in an average of $76,000 in fines at problem refineries, but the state inspectors did not collect a single fine from a major oil company.
Contra Costa County’s industrial safety inspection program, which monitors refineries’ compliance with environmental rules and not workplace safety laws, spends about 600 hours per audit of the county’s oil plants, including Chevron’s.
Critics have called for stricter enforcement by Cal/OSHA. They noted that even after a major fire at the Richmond refinery in 2007, the agency fined Chevron just $185 for failing to maintain a valve that was supposed to keep oil out of a pipe. The fire, which started when the pipe ruptured, injured three workers.
A federal Labor Department audit of California’s regulation of all hazardous industries, including refineries, found this year that state inspectors issued far fewer serious violations per inspection than the national average. California inspectors found 1 in 5 violations to be serious, compared with 3 in 5 nationally.
The task force that Brown created is charged with improving cooperation among agencies to help prevent disasters. Agencies represented on the task force include Cal/OSHA, the Labor and Workforce Development Agency, the state Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Public Health, the Air Resources Board, the Health and Human Services Agency, the Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Toxic Substances Control.
Contra Costa County Supervisor John Gioia, who chairs the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, welcomed the interagency approach to refinery safety. He said it could help dispel confusion over issues such as who has authority over Chevron’s rebuilding of the Richmond crude oil unit.
“Where we need the work in California (is) in defining each agency’s jurisdiction, so we have a more comprehensive system of regulation over oil refineries,” Gioia said. “Right now, we have a mix of federal, state, regional and local agencies, with everyone pointing the finger at everybody else.”
Also Tuesday, the Richmond City Council met to discuss refinery safety issues, in particular Chevron’s plan to replace pipe damaged in the August fire with material that federal investigators say was implicated in a refinery fire in Bellingham, Wash., in February.
Chevron officials said Monday they were halting rebuilding work at the Richmond refinery until city officials decided whether to give them the go-ahead.
On Tuesday, the council approved a resolution warning Chevron that any rebuilding it undertakes before state and federal investigators finish looking into the fire would be done “at its own risk,” and that the city reserved the right to order the work redone once the probes are completed.