The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says investigations into Chevron’s August 7 fire in Richmond will take at least a year, and it’s premature to discuss prosecution or fines.
At an August 27 public briefing on the investigations, Dan Meer, the assistant director of the EPA’s Region 9 Superfund Division, said the EPA would prosecute to the fullest extent possible if it finds that Chevron violated the law.
In an interview this week Meer qualified his remarks. “It is very early in our investigation,” Meer said. “At this point in time, we‘re not able to say one way or another whether violations occurred and what the extent of them may be. It’ll be at least 12 months before we get into specifics about enforcement, and Chevron may do things proactively before that.”
Other agencies investigating the fire are working on similar timelines. Jennifer Jones, a spokesperson for the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, said it’s “too hard to tell” how long their process will last. “We’re expecting to continue for several months,” she said.
Jones said the BAAQMD can assess civil penalties under the California Health and Safety Code but does not prosecute criminally. Penalties range from $10,000-40,000 for every day the refinery was in violation. The lowest level applies to basic air quality violations, the middle level for negligence, and the highest level for intent.
The EPA plans an on-site audit of Chevron’s Richmond refinery in October, Meer said. He also said he is sending information requests to Chevron, which must respond to comply with a part of the Clean Air Act that governs toxic releases and companies’ responsibilities to operate safely and report any releases.
“We’ll probably send a series of information requests, because refineries are pretty complicated organizations,” Meer said. The requests seek to determine what processes Chevron had in place, how it complied with them, and what the company did when the incident that led to the fire occurred. “That’s the information that informs whether they have any violations or not,” Meer said.
If violations occurred, EPA would decide to proceed at administrative or civil levels. “We can sue Chevron in federal court,” Meer said, noting that if a case seems substantial, “the U.S. Department of Justice and EPA would then jointly contact Chevron and say, ‘Hey, we have a complaint, and we could file or settle, so let’s talk turkey.’”
Meer noted that EPA is working with the U.S. Chemical Safety Board and Cal/OSHA, the state’s division of Occupational Safety and Health, to ensure they finish their on-site investigations before EPA visits the refinery. “We also have one of our investigators with CSB and Cal/OSHA right now, and any information we need, we will be able to collect later,” he said. “We’ll be looking at paper records that they should have been keeping.”
Meer wouldn’t speculate about fines Chevron could face, but said there is a maximum daily penalty of $37,500. But, he said, there’s a caveat: the agency has to figure out for each specific violation how many days it occurred, which might vary considerably.
Greg Karras, a senior scientist at Communities for a Better Environment who has been one of the major critics of the various fire investigations, expressed doubt that EPA or BAAQMD would take steps that would be a serious deterrent to Chevron.
“Will they prosecute and end up with penalties or jail time that’s serious enough to have a deterrent effect?” he said. “I hope so but that would be the first time.” “This was the biggest spill into the air that anyone can remember,” he added. “This is also the first time the majority of city officials aren’t beholden to Chevron. But the environmental justice impacts of the largest refinery in the Bay Area in the middle of Richmond have not been reduced.”
Chevron spokesperson Melissa Ritchie said the refinery is cooperating fully with all regulatory agencies and is committed to understanding the root cause of the fire.
“At this time the investigation is still in its early stages and those investigating have just begun close-up inspections of the equipment,’ she said in a statement. “The investigation is ongoing and it will take time before all the facts are known about the incident. Until then, we are continuing to respond to community concerns about the incident and we are still taking steps to safely produce transportation fuels, although at a reduced rate.”