Chevron failed to check pipes despite internal policies

Chemical Safety Board investigators inspect the damages caused by the August 6 fire at the Chevron refinery located in Richmond. (Photo courtesy: U.S. Chemical Safety Board)

Chemical Safety Board investigators inspect the damages caused by the August 6 fire at the Chevron refinery located in Richmond. (Photo courtesy: U.S. Chemical Safety Board)

Chevron failed to check pipes despite internal policies.

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board has found that sections of pipe that were measured following the August 6 fire at Chevron’s Richmond refinery had thinned in thickness by 80 percent. Chevron would have had to replace those sections to comply with its own standards, but the company did not inspect these sections in November 2011, despite internal policies to check all segments, CSB’s Don Holstrom said Tuesday night at the City Council meeting.

“There is no indication that this segment of pipe was inspected for thickness during the most recent November 2011 turnaround,” said Holmstrom, the western regional director of the CSB, an independent federal agency that investigates industrial chemical accidents. “However, we have obtained internal Chevron policies that recommend that every segment of pipe in this service should have been included in the pipe inspection program.”

Holmstrom said Chevron inspected other sections of pipe during its November 2011 corrosion report and found that while all the pipes it inspected were OK, some regions came close to needing replacement according to Chevron’s own internal guidelines.

“Understanding the decision-making around the replacement of the 8-inch pipe remains a key focus of the investigation,” he said.

Nigel Hearne, who took over as general manager of Chevron’s Richmond facility a year ago, apologized to the community and the 1,500 Chevron employees at the Richmond refinery for the Aug. 6 incident. “Chevron does take full responsibility,” Hearne said. “Clearly we fell short of the high standards that we set for ourselves.”

Hearne said he recognized the fear and anger that the community is feeling. “This incident is not reflective of our refinery or our company,” he said, adding that the refinery supports local schools, invests in the community and hires locally as much as it can. “We remain committed to a healthy and productive relationship with the community of Richmond.”

The council meeting took a decidedly modern turn when CSB officials screened a five-minute surveillance video of the Aug. 6 vapor release and fire—and then asked the public to share any photos and videos they took of the event by emailing them to public@csb.gov.

“The more information you can provide on the photos, such as where and when they were taken, the more help they will be,” Holmstrom said. “We will take all the photos and video—as well as the surveillance video and other images in our possession—to model the vapor release.”

The surveillance video shows the release of a cloud of white vapor that CSB officials said 18 workers had to escape from. The vapor spreads, then ignites, masking the refinery’s Number 4 crude unit in heavy black smoke, interspersed with flickering bright orange flames.

A report Chevron filed with Contra Costa County’s Health Services Department 30 days after the incident stated there was a release of “hydrocarbons and a subsequent fire,” and that “the incident occurred when a small hydrocarbon leak in a line from the Atmospheric Distillation Column grew in size and found an unknown ignition source.”

Chevron reported that the leak was discovered at 4:02 p.m., and that at approximately 6:22 p.m., a small flash fire occurred, and that at some time shortly before 6:25 p.m., the size of the release increased abruptly.

“Between 6:25 p.m. and 6:28 p.m., the order was given to shut down the unit,” Chevron stated. “Around this time a white cloud was visible. A significant amount of water was being applied on scene and considerable steam was created. Because the white cloud did not ignite, we have questions about its composition.”

Roger Lin, a staff attorney at Communities for a Better Environment, asked the council to demand that Chevron rebuild its crude unit, in case Chevron does not listen to CSB’s recommendations.

“Or CSB might not finish its report before Chevron rebuilds,” Lin said.

CBE Director Greg Karras added that the unit should be rebuilt better. “It should be rebuilt to be as safe as possible,” he said. “That didn’t happen in 2007,” he added referring to 2007 fire at the refinery.

Speakers in the public comment section demanded that Chevron improve its monitoring and safety systems, and warned that a major explosion could cause massive casualties and wipe out parts of Richmond

Community member Jose Rivera said residents need to know “what was in the air,” during the fire.

Richmond resident Doug Gilbert suggested the establishment of a community benefits fund to support parks and recreation, health centers, education and the installation of a monitoring system.

“They need to put worker and public safety first,” he said.

Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin said she would, “commit to doing what is best and regulating to the highest level possible.”

 

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