Following Chevron fire, respiratory complaints, calls for transparent investigation
on August 7, 2012
Richmond residents this morning woke up to the lingering smell of burnt oil from Chevron’s Richmond Refinery, which caught fire last night following a leak. Firefighters and engineers at the plant put the main fire out early this morning, and Chevron reported that its engineers were monitoring a controlled burn as a safety measure to contain pressure.
Hundreds of Richmond residents have reported suffering from a variety of respiratory problems following the fire that gutted part of Chevron’s Richmond Refinery Monday night, according to a press release circulated by Doctors Medical Center in San Pablo.
The center, which activated its Incident Command Center shortly after the fire erupted in Chevron’s diesel refinery, admitted 181 residents overnight complaining of eye irritation and respiratory ailments after inhaling smoke from the fire. “Now that people are waking up, DMC is currently experiencing a second wave of individuals seeking services,” the center reported in a statement released Tuesday morning. “We expect, and are prepared for, a high demand at the hospital throughout the day.”
The Bay Area Air Quality Management District, which sent inspectors to take air samples Monday night, released an announcement Tuesday morning that results are expected later this afternoon. In the meantime, they stated, “Local air quality monitors show minimal impacts from the fire, with pollution levels well below the federal health standards. Weather conditions were favorable at the time of the incident – surface winds were light and heat pushed the smoke upwards where stronger winds aloft helped to disperse it.”
On the streets and in recreational areas around the 2,900-acre refinery, which borders a park on its western edge, residents woke up to the aftermath of the blaze, with a strong smell of burnt oil still saturating the air as a grey pall of smoke lingered over the hills.
“It does smell really bad this morning, much worse than last night,” said Randy Williams, a Richmond resident who went on his early morning bike ride along I-580. “We thought it would be better now that the fire seems to be out.”
Rick Gerrod, a Richmond resident, drove to the eastern edge of the Richmond Bridge early this morning, one of the worst affected areas downwind from the plant and photographed wildlife in the park area.
“It smells like oil. I could go and see a doctor if I wanted, and get a diagnosis saying I have a respiratory illness as well,” Gerrod said. “Chevron is in the business of making money, they aren’t doing themselves much good if they’re blowing themselves up and setting themselves on fire.”
This came as Richmond mayor Gayle McLaughlin called on Chevron to be fully accountable to local authorities on the effects of the fire on the community and the environment. McLaughlin said the city would demand full transparency in investigations to establish the full impact of the refinery fire on the health of Richmond residents and the environment.
“We live with this potential bomb, if you will, in the city of Richmond,” McLaughlin said. “We’ve had these explosions of one magnitude or another ever few years. In 2007 there was a fire as well and it wasn’t this big, but it brought forward a lot of concerns.”
McLaughlin said Chevron has not always been forthcoming with information on the environmental and health effects of its operations in Richmond, often using proprietary protection as a way of withholding information. “Chevron needs to be very forthright with what potential problems may occur again. Then we can weigh in on whether or not that it’s acceptable,” she said. “Our interest is for the protection of our residents. Big corporations like Chevron has its profits as its bottom line but for the city of Richmond and its residents our health is the bottom line.”
McLaughlin said the city would seek the assistance of independent investigators and scientists in reviewing the data collected in environmental impact and air quality assessments following the fire. “We want to know what type of toxins were in smoke that has been released. There’s been a filing with the state that indicates there were diesel-grade materials,” McLaughlin said.
The fire may also have an economic cost to the city, she said. Some businesses in Point Richmond were forced to close early and BART shut down two stations as people scurried indoors in compliance with the shelter-in-place called after the fire broke out. “Many people lost work time, people were unable to get the kind of transportation they needed. I think community impact data is very valuable,” McLaughlin said.
In a statement, Chevron said the main fire had been extinguished by 7:15 am Tuesday morning, and safety officials had allowed a small controlled burn as a safety measure to reduce pressure.
“This is helping to ensure more hydrocarbons don’t escape,” the statement read. “This is similar in concept to how refineries utilize flares.”
The company is hosting a town hall meeting tonight at 6 pm at the Richmond Memorial Auditorium.
Chevron’s handling of the fire has met with mixed reactions from residents, with some saying the corporation handled the public fallout from the accident well, while others have reservations.
“Chevron is a good neighbor,” said the owner of a Point Richmond coffee shop who did not wish to give her name. The shop receives a lot of business from the Chevron plant, which employs at least 1,200 people. “If it wasn’t for Chevron, we wouldn’t be getting any business here,” she said.
Concerns have been raised over Richmond’s phone alert system, with many residents saying they did not receive alerts after the outbreak of the fire. McLaughlin said the phone alert system issue would be on the agenda for the town hall meeting.
“I think that’s an ongoing issue of concern,” she said. “I got many calls and emails from residents that they weren’t called at all or called three hours later. … People said they saw the bellows of black smoke before any sirens went into effect. It should be tightened up so everything happens in a 1-2-3 way. As soon as accident occurs sirens should go off and robo-calls should go out immediately.”
The town hall is expected to allow residents to weigh in on what should be done to reduce the impact of Chevron’s operations on the health of the community and the environment, she said.
“The issue of Chevron in our community has been an issue as far as, probably as far back as 1902, but certainly in recent years,” she said. “We want to have them understand the concerns of the community. This is not a community that is just trying to raise issues for the sake of bashing Chevron. This is a community that has direct experience of going through these periodic explosions and fires that have caused problems, concerns and fears in their lives. It is up to residents to get voices further heard and I’ll work to give them every opportunity to be heard.”
Andres Soto, Richmond organizer for Communities for a Better Environment (CBE), the environmental justice organization that forced Chevron to review its project proposal for an upgrade of the plant after suing the oil giant over a shoddy environmental impact report, disputed Chevron’s version of the events that led to the fire at the Richmond refinery. “People throughout the community heard a series of explosions and Chevron is saying that there were no explosions,” Soto said.
He also said that environmental watchdogs want to know more about the liquid that has been burning. “The unit that blew up is the unit where the crude oil first comes into the refinery and they start warming it up. That allows the oil to be diverted in to different parts of the refinery and turned in to gasoline and jet fuel and other pesticides,” said Soto. “Question becomes, what kind of crude is in there — is it dirty crude or lighter crude? Either way there is a whole slew of highly volatile chemicals that are produced and that’s what was spewed out in to the environment.”
Soto said the chemicals released into the air following yesterday’s blaze could include sulfur compounds, hydrocarbons and and trace metals, all of which pose health hazards. Representatives from CBE are expected to participate in the town hall meeting tonight and will hold a rally at 5:30 prior to the meeting in front of the Richmond Auditorium.
“We plan on having community members there to speak out about what they’re doing at the refinery that is so problematic, as well as the complete inadequacy of the warning system,” Soto said. “What we know is that stuff is going to eventually come down. If it comes down into El Sobrante, there is potential for it to get into the water supply. This is a regional issue.”
Update 4:15 pm: In a press release, Doctors Medical Center has updated the total number of patients seen with smoke-related complaints since the fire started to “over 300.” The main complaints continue to be eye irritation and respiratory problems, the medical group stated.
For people who are concerned they may be suffering from smoke-related illnesses, please follow Contra Costa County’s Public Health Department Guidelines at www. cchealth.org/emergencies and seek services when needed.
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