Richmond Confidential is getting reports of a large fire burning at the Richmond Chevron refinery.
Early this evening, Richmond residents reported hearing sirens and seeing flames that were visible from miles. The rising plumes were dark black, nearly blotting out the sun as they drifted eastward. They were as dark and looked as dense as thunderclouds in certain spots.
“There’s been a fire at the number four crude unit at 6:15 PM,” confirmed Chevron spokesperson Melissa Ritchie at shortly after 8:00 pm.
She said the company has no details yet about the cause of the fire. There was ”One minor injury, a burn to a wrist, on one of the workers,” she said.
A press release issued by the company shortly before 8 pm read: “We are responding to this incident as quickly as we can and are deploying highly trained personnel to assess and manage the situation. We will not speculate on the cause of this incident. Our priority right now is containing the fire and protecting the health and safety of our employees and community.”
The Contra Costa County Health Services Department has issued a shelter in place warning for Richmond residents and says that a Hazmat team is currently at the scene testing the air. Sheltering in place means remaining inside, shutting windows and doors, making sure vents are closed, turning off ventilating and air conditioning, and bringing pets indoors. More information on how to shelter in place can be obtained here.
As of 9 pm, according to Randy Sawyer at Contra Costa Health Services, the shelter in place advisory is only for Richmond, North Richmond and San Pablo, although some news stations are reporting otherwise. However, the Health Services Department advises that residents in nearby areas such El Cerrito and Martinez, as well as people with pre-existing conditions such as asthma and emphysema or those who are sensitive to chemicals, should stay inside.
Sawyer says the advisory is a level 3 advisory, the highest level they issue. Under this level they can issue an evacuation, although that is not what they are doing at this time.
Shortly after 6:30 pm, BART announced a station closure at El Cerrito del Norte and at Richmond. BART service has stopped between Richmond and El Cerrito Plaza. You can keep updated here.
Councilmember Corky Booze has confirmed that there were no major injuries due to the explosion. He says he was riding with Lt. Hill of the Richmond Police Department at about 6:30 PM when they heard an explosion and saw large plumes of smoke coming from two of the stacks. ”There were pretty big heavy black smoke clouds when it first went off. They are getting it under control quickly,” he said.
“I do want to credit the lieutenant and fire department. They jumped in to service immediately and issued the shelter in place warning,” he said.
Residents throughout the Bay Area got a good look at the smoke during their evening commutes.
“I could see the smoke and fire from my friend’s window,” said Charles Turner, an Oakland resident. “I was leaving Richmond, on my way over to the El Cerrito Del Norte BART stop when the station got shut down. Hopefully the emergency teams will be able to contain the fire.”
“I didn’t hear the sirens until after I saw the huge smoke clouds in the sky,” said Richmond resident Joel Nickelson-Shanks. “The smoke is so thick, it cast a shadow over Richmond.”
“I heard a big bang around 6:00, it was too loud to be gunshots, so I thought a plane had crashed or something,” said Martin Dennis, a Richmond resident who lives in properties overlooking the refinery. “It’s a tragedy to our community, not to mention the violence that we have to deal with. I hope they make everything alright for our sake and take more precautions.”
Dennis said the explosion was followed by the wailing of fire warning sirens, a familiar pattern to most residents. ”I have been here for 45 years, and every three to five years there is an incident at the refinery,” said Dennis, who worked as a cleaner at the refinery soon after graduating from school. “It’s a crime against our community. Every time something like this happens dangerous chemicals are released into the air we breathe.”
Real estate agent Toni Hanna was in Point Richmond at the time the fire began, ”taking a beautiful walk on the beachfront area,” she said. “About 6:30 I saw a plume of smoke and thought it was a house fire. I started driving towards it, but got to the other side of the hill and saw that it was the refinery burning up. Two smoke stacks on fire and huge black noxious cloud heading north.”
She says she is having some mild issues because of the smoke. “My eyes are bothering me, and I have a headache,” Hanna said.
She said that as a real estate agent she sees how much the refinery impacts home values in the area, especially in the poorest parts of town where people live closest to the refinery. “The closer you are to the refinery the more so property values are affected. But I think what people are realizing tonight is that it doesn’t just affect Richmond. It affects all the communities downwind of the refinery as well,” said Hanna. ”I just hope that this is wake-up call. They should be converting that refinery to biofuels. Chevron gets away with a lot in this community. I hope that this will be a turning point.”
Reached by phone on Monday evening, Councilmember Tom Butt, who lives in Point Richmond, said, “I got a great view of everything going on there …. By the time I could see it fire was well underway, smoke thousand of feet in the air. Sirens went off around 6:30 PM.”
“I’ve lived here almost 40 years and this is the worst one I’ve seen,” he said of the refinery fire, adding, “Well, the worst Chevron one. General Chemical in ’93 was worst one overall.”
Butt had some criticism for the phone warning system. “I’ve been watching these things for years. The community warning system has never worked. One hundred percent failure rate,” Butt said. He said the problem with the system is that not everyone is notified on their home phone as they should be, and that the advisory is given over too great an area. “They basically warned everybody in West Contra Costa County to shelter people,” he said.
“One of the concerns I have about this system is it makes everything come to a stop in the whole part of the county. In reality is was moving over Richmond and in to the east,” he said of the dark plume of smoke.
He also said that Chevron’s response and communication has been better with this incident than in years past. Company representatives called him and all other councilmembers to apologize and provide information about the fire, he said.
“They did tell me they’re going to have within 24 hours a town hall meeting for updated/detailed info. I think they’re trying harder than they have in the past to communicate with the community,” Butt said.
At approximately 9:30 pm, the Contra Costa Health Department updated its web page to add that alert sirens would continue to sound because “a diesel-like combustible liquid is burning at the refinery.”
Chevron has announced that it will host a town hall meeting on Tuesday, August 7 at 6 pm at the Richmond Memorial Auditorium.
Richmond Confidential will continue to follow this story.
You can read our complete archive of Chevron-related past coverage here.
Richmond Confidential reporters Jennifer Baires, Spencer Whitney and Tawanda Kanhema contributed to this report.