Chevron: Failed pipe had unknown weakness

RICHMOND, Calif. — A corroded pipe that failed and triggered a leak and massive fire at Chevron Corp.’s Richmond refinery had a low silicon content that went undetected during the company’s tests and therefore was unaddressed, the manager in charge of the facility said.

Nigel Hearne, general manager of Chevron Richmond, described the chemical composition of the decades-old, eight-inch pipe section as a contributing factor to the Aug. 6 blaze that sent thousands of people to the hospital with smoke-related complaints and knocked offline one of the nation’s largest refineries.

Hearne told reporters during a news conference and residents at a community meeting that the company now thinks the pipe was more susceptible to thinning when exposed to high temperatures, a weakness that was not fully understood or acted upon before the corroded conduit exploded, The Contra Costa Times reported.

Hearne said the section that failed was part of a larger 200-foot-long pipe that was inspected in June at 19 points.

“Unfortunately, we did not inspect a 5-foot length,” he said.

But he declined to shed much light on reports that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was conducting a criminal investigation of Chevron after learning the company had been routing pollutants around monitoring equipment at the Richmond refinery and burning them off into the atmosphere in violation of a 2005 local air quality rule.

Hearne said Chevron learned of the investigation about two months ago. He denied that the refinery had willfully tried to avoid having pollutants detected.

He said it was up to federal investigators to determine whether the violation was an oversight or flagrant. The probe is unrelated to last month’s fire at the Richmond plant, but has ramped up community pressure for greater oversight of the refinery.