Community members wait hours to vent at Chevron’s fire update

Reverend Kenneth Davis speaks at a Chevron community forum.

"How long are we supposed to hold our breath" said Reverend Kenneth Davis. "The fire went on for nine hours." Richmond residents were instructed to remain in place during the refinery fire in August. (Photo by: Tawanda Kanhema)

A Chevron spokesperson said Monday night that the Aug. 6 refinery fire was caused by corroded pipes and that Chevron technical experts were aware of the potential danger. Heather Kulp said Chevron has “identified potential contributing factors such as the type of metal in the pipe that failed.”

Chevron’s technical experts knew about this mechanism and its impacts, Kulp said. “It does not appear, however, this information was effectively understood and acted upon,” she said, promising that Chevron will looks for ways to “enhance internal communication.”

Richmond residents packed into the Civic Auditorium didn’t appear to accept Kulp’s explanation, hissing and booing as she spoke. And they vented their frustration in the community comment session, after representatives from four regulatory agencies investigating the fire said they couldn’t issue preliminary reports at this point.

But they cheered when the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, an independent agency that has no regulatory power but can issue recommendations, said it plans to issue a metallurgical report on the accident in December.

CSB investigator Steve Cutchen said his agency is not ready to concur with Chevron’s conclusions. “There are lots of known corrosion mechanisms,” Cutchen said. “Sulfidation corrosion certainly is a primary corrosion mechanism but we are not prepared to hang our hat on that yet.”

Initially, Cutchen said he couldn’t speculate on when CSB’s independent findings would be available.

But after Communities for a Better Environment Director Greg Karras pressed him to give the community a timeline, Cutchen said CSB’s metallurgical results “should be available in December.”

“We’re trying to make sure we’re going to be safe,” Karras told Cutchen. “Frankly, CBE trusts you.”

Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin expressed concern over the sulfidation revelations—and the recent discovery that the Bay Area Air Quality Management District fined Chevron $170,000 in August 2011 for bypassing air monitors.

“The community has been saying for the longest time that the composition of the oil is a factor,” McLaughlin said. As for the bypassing issue, which Chevron says ended in 2009, McLaughlin said, it was not acceptable.

“That in fact is criminal,” she said. “When Chevron rebuilds, we want it built with the safest, least-emitting technology.”

Assemblymember Nancy Skinner and State Sen. Loni Hancock announced that they are calling for a state-level hearing, once all the preliminary investigations into the fire are complete. “Tonight is the next step on the journey to finding out what happened, and what we have to do to make sure it never happens again,” Hancock said.

U.S. EPA’s Dan Meer said he understood the community’s frustration, anger and impatience. “I guarantee that if Chevron violated the Clean Air Act, EPA will vigorously enforce those statutes,” Meer said.

But the audience’s frustration mounted when a moderator read out questions that the community had been asked to submit in writing, only to hear the panel of experts struggle to answer them.

CBE’s Andres Soto summed up the community’s exasperation when members of the public were finally allowed to speak freely. “When lots of questions were asked, it seemed like Keystone Cops—no one knew the answers,” Soto said. “You really lack any credibility,” Soto said to Chevron’s Kulp, responding to part of her statement that there were no explosions and that there was only steam and not chemicals in the vapor cloud on the day of the fire.

Other residents vented about medical protocols at the jail during the fire, fears that the water supply is contaminated, and the lack of plans to help seniors and the homeless.

“There were explosions,” the Rev. Kenneth Davis said.“ How long do you think we can stay in our homes, when fire starts? How long can we hold our breath?”

James Smith said he was in the West County jail when the fire broke out. “Every room got a window, it was hot that day, so windows were open to get some air in the room,” said Smith, who claimed he didn’t get the medications he needed that day in a timely fashion.

One Comment

  1. Don Gosney

    There seems to be a slant to this reporting that concerns me.

    Not only was I there but I have a pretty good audio/video recording and both my own observations, my still photos and my video don’t seem to agree with some of what was reported here.

    For instance, there were only in the neighborhood of 200 persons in attendance with a great many of them either staffers for elected officials, city staffers, regulatory staffers and members of the media. That’s far from being “packed”.

    I suppose that if you’re right in the middle of a group of people who are booing, hissing and making catcalls, it would be very easy to mistakenly assume that everyone was doing that but this wasn’t the case at this meeting. With the exception of small pockets of disruptive people, most were calm, polite and were there to actually learn rather than disrupt.

    The article also suggests that the public was denied an opportunity to speak when that was never the plan nor what actually happened. The moderator announced several times that the written questions from the audience would be asked and then questions from speakers would be allowed. It was only when a small handful of attendees didn’t like the idea of waiting their turn that they DEMANDED that the other people who had presented written questions were to be given second class status so the loud, rude and disruptive attendees could be jumped to the front of the queue.

    The panel could not answer some of the questions partly because they didn’t have the information available to them yet. For instance, Mr. Karras kept asking exactly when the public could see the metallurgical report and the panelist kept telling the audience that he couldn’t tell them exactly when because they didn’t know yet. If you don’t know, how are you supposed to respond? There are a great many unanswered questions but that’s why you have an investigative process.

    Some of the questions were in the realm of areas outside of their jurisdiction. Asking questions of Cal-OSHA about national policies, asking local regulators about whether they were going to make sure actions were taken across the country, asking some of the panelists about punishments that they were going to mete out–these were all outside of the jurisdiction of these panelists so why castigate them when they did not give the people the responses they wanted?

    There also seemed to be a misunderstanding of some of the information presented at this meeting in conjunction with Chevron’s earlier press release from earlier in the day where they discussed sulfidation corrosion as a possible contributor to the corroded pipe. How the Mayor was able to confuse herself into thinking that this was an admission by Chevron that they were processing high sulfur crude and this was why there was a fire is a mystery.

    While the unit where the problem occurred is often referred to as Chevron’s #4 Reformer, this unit is frequently referred to by the name used when it was built back in 1976: LSFO. LSFO is an acronym for LOW SULFUR Fuel Oil. The key phrase here is LOW SULFUR. Not the high sulfur that the Mayor claimed in her opening remarks–those very same remarks where she proclaimed that Chevron’s actions were criminal–even though the investigation is far from complete. I was very concerned when the City’s highest elected official prejudged Chevron without really KNOWING the facts. That’s the tactic you often see shyster lawyers doing on courtroom steps as they try to prejudice the public so they ignore the facts and go with the wild accusations made to tease the media.

    And I heard at least three times at the meeting where people were condescendingly referring to the Chevron refinery being 110 years old as if the operating units were actually that old. The power plant that Chevron has been begging to replace is in the neighborhood of 80 years old but most of the older units are no more than 50 years old. LSFO was built in 1976; the Co-Gen in 1993; the Diesel Hydrotreater in 1994; the Isomax and existing hydrogen unit in the mid-60’s; the Lube Oil plant in 1984; the Alky Unit in 1996; the TKC unit rebuilt in 1991 and the FCC unit rebuilt in 1996. These units are designed to last 40-50 years and with proper maintenance and with the constant upgrades, their lifespan can be expanded and they should be able to operate safely for a great many years.

Comments are closed.