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.