Federal investigators have concluded an aged and severely corroded pipe caused the Aug. 6 Chevron Refinery fire. Investigators and elected officials were quick to blame the oil giant for the explosion, arguing the corporation knew the pipe should have been replaced years ago.
The findings, released by the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board on Feb. 13, are consistent with months-old reports that blame the incident on high sulfidation corrosion and low silicon content in the 36-year-old steel pipe in the refinery’s crude unit, which has remained shut down since the fire.
“On the day of the accident, Chevron should have shut down the crude unit as soon as a leak was observed and removed workers to a safe location,” said CSB Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso in a statement. “Continuing to troubleshoot the problem and having firefighters remove insulation searching for a leak – while flammable hydrocarbons were flowing through the leaking piping – was inconsistent with good safety practice.”
A Chevron spokesman said in an email Chevron U.S.A. is inspecting every pipe in the crude unit that could be corroded by sulfidation. “Any component found to be unsuitable for service will be replaced before restarting the unit,” Sean Comey said.
The metallurgic lab tests conducted by Anamet, Inc. in Hayward state the 8-inch steel pipe used in the crude unit was installed in 1976 and over the years, was thinned out by corrosive sulfur compounds that naturally occur in crude distillation. Pipe samples showed a low amount of silicon, which is known to prevent this kind of damage.
Six refinery employees sustained minor injuries and 15,000 Richmond residents sought medical treatment after breathing polluted air in the fire, the 109-page report states. In late January, the state’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OHSA) slapped Chevron with 25 citations and close to $1 million in penalties related to the fire; most violations were for “the realistic possibility of worker injuries and deaths in the fire.” (Chevron has announced its intent to appeal the citations, the CSB release states.)
“This reports confirms what Chevron already knew – that the pipe was severely corroded and should have been replaced – but failed to act on before the August fire,” Cal/OSHA Chief Ellen Widess said in a statement. “Chevron’s own metallurgists and pipe inspectors reached the same conclusion and recommended as far back as 2002 that Chevron take action to protect its workers, the community and the environment by replacing the pipe that finally ruptured in 2012.”
In his statement, Comey disagreed with some aspects of the CSB release, but maintained Chevron’s commitment to preventing a repeat accident and discussing the results of its own investigation with CSB and Cal/OSHA.
“We want to be clear that our strong focus is on preventing a similar incident from happening in the future,” he wrote. “As we have previously communicated, we are implementing corrective actions that will strengthen management oversight, process safety, mechanical integrity, and leak response.”
But some elected leaders hinted monetary penalties may not be enough.
“Today’s finding … following the citation by Cal/OSHA of willful violations demonstrates once again that Chevron has failed to properly monitor facilities, and that the Richmond refinery fire could have been prevented,” Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley) said in a statement. “Richmond and the entire East Bay need assurances that our refineries will be operated safely.”
The Chemical Safety Board’s ongoing investigation to determine the root causes of the fire will be released later this year.