City officials and experts hear public comment on Chevron refinery repair

Audience holds up sign for Chevron.

City Manager Bill Lindsay held a meeting for the public to voice concerns and questions regarding Chevron's repair pipes responsible for Aug. 6 fire. (Photo by: Stephen Hobbs)

While City Manager Bill Lindsay said Wednesday he’s still not ready to issue permits to allow Chevron to begin replacing the pipes that failed in the Aug. 6 fire, the city held a public meeting Wednesday evening to offer information about and a chance to comment on the debate over what type of material to use in the pipes.

The meeting came a day after the city’s metallurgical consultants backed the piping material choice proposed by Chevron to repair the No. 4 crude unit at the Richmond Refinery.

Jim McLaughlin and David Hendrix were hired to analyze the materials report submitted by Chevron. In letters sent to the City Manager on Tuesday, both agreed that Chevron’s basis for using 9-chrome alloy in the refinery repairs was in compliance with industry standards and fit the requirements of the California Fire Code.

At the meeting Wednesday, County Supervisor John Gioia said that findings from the metallurgical consultants failed to address the more important issue of whether the piping material that Chevron is recommending is the best material to avoid another accident.

The reports are “limited to whether the piping is industry standard and meets the fire code,” he said. “Which is a very different issue from what has the lowest risk to avoid catastrophic failure.”

McLaughlin said that he was supporting the use of 9-chrome steel over the 300-series alternative not only because it met industry standards but also because of its immunity to stress corrosion cracking.

Approximately 150 people were in attendance in the standing-room only City Council chambers. Representatives of state and local elected officials and city councilmembers were among the audience.

On the panel with McLaughlin and Lindsay were Senior Planner Lina Velasco, Fire Marshall Terry Harris, Fire Chief Michael Banks, and Director of Planning and Building Richard Mitchell.

Wednesday’s meeting opened with an overview of the permit process from Lindsay, Velasco and Harris.

Lindsay said that a “more detailed analysis” was needed by the city before further permits for high temperature sulfidation application would be issued to Chevron. Lindsay said that a temporary hold on approving permits for this process has been in place since Nov. 16.

Since the Aug. 6 fire, more than 50 permits have been issued by the city for the No. 4 Crude Unit and the Cat Cooling Tower Repair of the Richmond Refinery.

Following the permit report, McLaughlin provided background on metallurgy, a summary of Chevron’s technical analysis submitted to the city and also his own findings.

McLaughlin also addressed concerns over a BP Cherry Point refinery fire that occurred in Washington in February.

The piping in the BP Cherry Point refinery that failed was 9-chrome alloy and was damaged by sulfidation corrosion, but McLaughlin still sided with the choice of 9-chrome steel saying, “I agree with Chevron’s conclusion that the BP Cherry Point incident involving 9-chrome does not discount its use in its service in the Richmond crude unit.”

Chevron Senior Business Manager Barbara Smith then presented a slideshow with general information about the refinery and the crude unit where the fire occurred.

“We want this community to know that we take the incident that happened on Aug. 6 very seriously,” Smith said. It doesn’t reflect who we are. It doesn’t live up to the expectations that we have for ourselves.”

Mayor Gayle McLaughlin said she is disappointed in the time it’s taken Chevron to respond to requests for documents from the city and from the U.S. Chemical Safety Board.

In an email to the Mayor on Wednesday, Daniel Horowitz, the managing director of the CSB, said that Chevron had yet to respond to 42 document requests, which were now more than 10 days overdue.

Originally, the City Council had planned on waiting for the CSB to release its findings on the refinery fire before before holding a public meeting, but at the Dec. 4 council meeting Mayor McLaughlin announced that the report, which was expected to be presented in mid-December, would be pushed back into mid-January.

“There are 42 documents they have not yet responded to,” McLaughlin said. “So in terms of response and transparency, I have concerns.”

Earlier Wednesday, Chevron’s General Manager Nigel Hearne sent an email to the mayor and others to respond to accusations that Chevron is trying to push through permits without promptly responding to the CSB’s requests.

“In responding to this flood of information requests, Chevron U.S.A has produced approximately 300,000 pages of documents in only four months,” Hearne wrote. “To date, we have provided complete responses to more than half of the CSB’s subpoena requests, produced according to the agency’s own prioritization.”

Approximately 40 members of the public spoke at the meeting. Lindsay compiled their questions to be answered at the end of the meeting.

A substantial number of the public speakers spoke from past and current experiences as a refinery employee or cited their credentials in engineering.

Pipefitter Carlos Diaz said he has been contracting with Chevron off and on for 25 years and said that the Richmond refinery is one of the safest he’s seen.

“They maintain a level of safety that’s unparalleled to elsewhere in the United States,” Diaz said.

Diaz said he doesn’t attribute the explosion to malfunctioning parts or the use of inferior materials.

“It’s all about the fact that someone redlines something and a pipe should have been replaced a long time ago,” Diaz said. “That’s the elephant in the room that no one is talking about.”

In addition to people concerned about the overall safety of the refinery, others spoke about their concern over possibly losing their jobs at the refinery because of a hold on the permit-approval process.

In a letter to Lindsay sent on Dec. 11, Gary Beevers, the vice president of the United Steelworkers union, expressed his organization’s backing for the use of 9-chrome piping and the “prompt granting of a permit for the reconstruction of the process unit” at the refinery.

Kathleen Sullivan, member of the Human Rights and Human Relations Commission was concerned that the comments from the public represented a rift between workers concerned about their jobs and people concerned about their personal health and the safety of the refinery. “We don’t want to have people be laid off and we want to be safe,” Sullivan said. “We’ve got some good information that has been communicated on both sides.”

The meeting went past 10 p.m., and afterward Lindsay said that he felt the meeting accomplished the goals of giving the public “access to the experts.”

Lindsay said that he did not have a timetable for a decision on the permit process.

4 Comments

  1. Valerie Blythe Howell

    I think Chevron wants to use this repair process to upgrade to dirtier crude processing by installing more robust pipes. Therefore PLEASE demand emissions be held steady or reduced and that SCRUBBERS BE INSTALLED as a condition of permits.

  2. What people seem to be ignoring is that so many of these naysayers have no idea what would be the best technology. What they do know is that they hate Chevron with a passion and anything⎯ANYTHING⎯that Chevron suggests, they’re against.

    Even Council Member Butt tried to downplay the reports from BOTH of the City’s metallurgical experts by suggesting that they were recommending only the minimal standards. If these are the minimal standards, perhaps Council Member Butt can tell us all–with his expertise on the matter⎯exactly what the best technology really is. Of course, we would expect him and any one thinking the same way to back up his assertions with those pesky things they call FACTS.

    The two primary choices (aside from the plastic lined pipe that one speaker was pushing) is 9 Chrome pipe and something out of the 300 series of Stainless Steel pipes.

    Before examining this further, let’s make sure everyone understands that ALL PIPES CORRODE! It doesn’t matter whether they’re carbon steel, a Chrome Moly alloy, a stainless steel (which really isn’t stainless), plastic, wooden, lead⎯they ALL corrode. The only question is what will make them corrode, when will they corrode to the point of no longer being safe and what can we do to minimize the corrosion.

    The value of using 9 Chrome pipe is that we can predict the level of corrosion and, with proper inspections, know when to replace it.

    The value of the 300 stainless steel pipes is that it SHOULD be impervious to high temperature sulfidation corrosion. The problem is, though, that it is VERY susceptible to becoming brittle and cracking. And even worse, there is virtually no reliable inspection program except a 24/7 real time inspection of every square inch of the pipe that will give us any heads up that it might crack at any second.

    Being able to reply on a pipe should be of much greater value to “hoping” that it won’t crack today.

    Keep in mind that when the Low Sulfur Fuel Oil unit where this accident occurred was being designed back in 1973, high temperature sulfidation (HST) was not yet on the radar. As a matter of fact, even the experts point out that the way steel and pipe was milled back then would not have addressed HTS.

    Even so, the lower grade carbon steel pipe used at that time lasted 36 years before degradation.

    Let’s not forget that sections of this pipe had recently been inspected and there was no indication at that time that there was a risk of a structural collapse of this pipe.

    Comparisons have been made about the 9 Chrome pipe that failed at the BP refinery in Cherry Point. It’s important to compare apples to apples before making any real arguments against the 9 Chrome pipe.

    In this case, for 29 years the BP pipe had been exposed to corrosive gases because it was a dead leg section of pipe with NO flow. The bad parts of the product were allowed to eat away at this section of pipe for 29 years. Even with these gases corroding this section of 9 Chrome pipe, it still took 29 years before there was a problem.

    All that I have ever asked is that we allow the experts to use their training and skills to come up with the best solution. Putting this in the hands of untrained and unskilled politicians and community leaders is folly and only makes Richmond look bad.

    Transparency is an important thing but to what end. When Congressman Miller has to vote in whether the F-22 or the F-35 jet will best serve the needs of the Marines, does he hold a Town Hall Meeting to ask Joe Shmoe on the street which one he thinks would be best? Or does he rely on the experts who actually know what they’re talking about?

    Many members of this community may hate Chevron with every waking breath but the truth is that they know far more about this than these community leaders ever will. These community leaders can try to call people who know something about this liars (as they did at this meeting after Carlos Diaz spoke) and they can try to incite the masses who know even less about this than the ignorant community leaders, but at the end of the day someone had better start listening to people who actually know something about this business.

    If we want to know something about how to stir things up, to shut down businesses and to destroy the economic fabric of this community, we’ll give these naysayers a call. But when we want to know how to refine oil, perhaps we should consider talking to the people who have been doing this for the past century.

  3. Gavin64608

    It scares me that the Chemical Safety Board does not know what they are talking about. Shouldn’t these “experts” have better knowledge of what the right type of metallurgy is?
    They based their recommendation not to endorse 9-Crome after a refinery failure in BP Cherry Point. That pipe failed after 29 years on a dead leg (no flow area) of a 9-Crome pipe. The solution there was not to remove the entire 9-Crome pipe, but instead to remove the dead leg and replace with new 9-Chrome pipe.
    Who is there to police the police? This delayed start-up of a vital income source for Richmond and caused the city to hire not one, but two metallurgists, to only come to the same conclusion that the refinery had already made.

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