Officials: Chevron failed to replace corroded pipe that caused Aug. fire

Smoke lingered above Richmond after a Chevron refinery fire on Aug. 6th. photo by: Tawanda Kanhema

Smoke lingered above Richmond after a Chevron refinery fire on Aug. 6th. photo by: Tawanda Kanhema

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.

4 Comments

  1. Andres Soto

    Congratulations for both the CSB and Cal-OSHA for a commendable service to the Richmond community and beyond. It is now abundantly clear that Chevron operates the refinery in a negligent manner. This is a call to action for all levels of government step in to force the industry to have more oversight, stop its ridiculous appeals, stop processing dirtier crude, begin solarizing their operations, hire local workers, end industry subsidies and to stop corrupting government and politics every where, especially in Richmond.

  2. Is there anything in this report that we haven’t known for months?

    Didn’t we know almost immediately that the pipe was corroded and this was the source of the breach?

    The CSB knows that there isn’t a single button in a unit that can be pushed that will shut down a unit. Perhaps some of our community activists and members of the public don’t know this but they should.

    Shutting down any unit in the refinery–AND ESPECIALLY ONE OF THIS SIZE AND COMPLEXITY–requires a number of steps over a protracted period of time–sometimes many hours–to shut down the products flowing through the pipes.

    Even shutting down a pump to stop the flow doesn’t depressurize these pipes.

    Even while efforts were being made to shut down the unit and the source of the product flowing through these pipes, wouldn’t it have been prudent to try to put out the fire? While the unit was being shut down and the pipes depressurized, wouldn’t it have been prudent to try to put out the fire? Had the fire spread, couldn’t this have damaged even more pipes to the point that there would have been even more sources of ignition?

    Of course, these community leaders, elected officials and members of the public understand that in a catastrophic fire of this nature–one that set afire the fire truck and the adjacent cooling towers–one of the first things to be destroyed are the electrical wires and the pneumatic controls that allows the unit operators to remotely shut down these systems. When this happens, it means that unit operators have to go into the danger zones–at great personal risk–to manually shut down these systems.

    There’s much to be learned from this incident but we all have to go into this with an open mind to learn what happened and work towards ensuring that it doesn’t happen again. We can’t do this when our primary goal is to assess blame and seek a political solution.

    • Jeff Kilbreth

      Don, I get your point that when a serious problem occurs, it is not a simple matter to shut down a refinery of this complexity or even to fight a fire in this sort of environment. No kidding! And I’m sure that Chevron did the best it could and that any mistakes in dealing with the emergency were honest and human. But the real point is not to argue about Chevron’s disaster response, but for Chevron to have a preventative maintenance program and a capital budget appropriate to the risks and the costs of “bad luck.” This is where I don’t understand your comment about how we should keep an open mind and not seek political solutions. According to Cal/OSHA, Chevron had identified the actual point of failure 10 years before the fire. So isn’t it fair to say that they were cutting corners on preventative maintenance? (Am I missing something?) Why shouldn’t the City of Richmond or Cal/OSHA or the EPA demand an annual review of their capital depreciation schedules, preventative maintenance program, etc?

      • Your points are well taken and I won’t argue against them.

        Part of my comments were directed at the political nature of the comments written here by Mr. Soto and by many of the comments made by some of his associates almost immediately after the fire calling all Chevron employees criminals (and continuing to claim that what happened that day was criminal).

        Chevron was used as a litmus test in the recent November election and again when making an appointment to fill the vacated seat on the City Council. Opinions have been voiced that if you don’t publicly criticize Chevron then you must be in bed with them or on their payroll.

        My suggestion that we go into this with an open mind goes back to the day after the fire and continuing to this day where community activists and elected leaders have already decided who is at fault, what they did wrong and what penalties should be imposed–all without benefit of a thorough investigation to learn EXACTLY what the cause was, who was at fault, what caused the problem and what might be done to prevent a repeat.

        I have never spoken out suggesting that Chevron be given a pass when they do something wrong. What I’ve spoken out against is the idea that because they’re the big bad oil company, that they should be treated differently and should be condemned BEFORE anyone even tries to learn what happened. It’s that whole ‘innocent until proven guilty’ thing we demand be applied to ourselves but want to ignore when it’s Chevron.

        When Chevron has done something wrong, they need to be properly dealt with but if they have not done anything wrong (like when they had a fire after being struck by lightning about a dozen years ago), then maybe they should be spared the death penalty.

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