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Residents skeptical of refinery investigations

on August 29, 2012

There are five separate investigations into the Aug. 6 Chevron refinery fire, but if Monday’s meeting was any indication, many Richmond residents doubt even that will be enough.

“Can you do something for the people of Richmond?” asked local resident Gerald Johnson, in exasperation, summing up many of the day’s public comments. “We’re dying out here. … Can you do something for us?”

The meeting Monday was the first joint public briefing from the local, state and federal agencies looking into the refinery fire. Organizers plan to convene these briefings every 7-10 days while the investigations continue, according to County Environmental Health chief Randy Sawyer, who moderated. Sawyer called the level of public inclusion unprecedented. “This is the first time we’ve done something like this,” he said. “People want to know what’s going on.”

Simply keeping track of which agencies are involved in what is a task. Four of the five investigations are being conducted by government agencies – the EPA, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, Cal/OSHA and the United States Chemical Safety Board. The fifth will be conducted by Chevron itself, which is required to conduct a “root causes analysis” under the county’s Industrial Safety Ordinance.

Three of the investigating agencies have the power to prosecute violations or collect fines – the EPA, the air district and Cal/OSHA — and all three said they intend to use those powers.

The EPA will prosecute to the fullest extent possible if it finds that Chevron violated the law, said Dan Meer, the assistant director of the EPA’s Region 9 Superfund Division. “They have good lawyers,” Meer said, adding that the agency would, if necessary, “go mano a mano” with them.  Cal/OSHA did not attend the meeting, but sent a statement saying it would assess financial penalties if its investigation turned up violations at the refinery.

The federal Chemical Safety Board, by contrast, is not a regulatory agency, and cannot issue penalties, said Dan Tillema, the CSB’s lead investigator on the refinery fire. Instead, the CSB’s mission is to investigate accidents and prevent their recurrence. Tillema promised transparency and a “holistic” investigation, looking at everything from past incidents and the mechanical integrity of the crude unit to the refinery’s safety culture and management.

For many in the audience, these promises seemed to ring hollow. Speakers argued that past incidents and investigations had not delivered change. In particular, residents assailed the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, which is responsible for regulating air pollution from the refinery.

“The BAAQMD has never done anything for us,” said local resident Tarnel Abbott. “They act like a company shill.”

Jack Broadbent, CEO of the air district, promised the agency would review its own performance as well as Chevron’s.  “We’re going to take this opportunity to beef up the monitoring,” he said.

“The air district continues to regret what we did that evening,” Broadbent said, referring to an agency announcement immediately after the refinery fire that pollutants from the fire were “not a significant health concern.” Broadbent said that in its haste to update the public, the agency spoke too soon. In fact, he said, the agency has no good way to monitor particulates in the air and its system is not designed to assess localized impacts. “We understand there were impacts,” he said. “Our own staff suffered those impacts.”

No one from Chevron spoke at the meeting, though the refinery had representatives in the audience.

At least one local priority was addressed. During her remarks, Mayor Gayle McLaughlin asked the agencies whether the investigation would look into the refinery’s “crude slate” – essentially, the mix of crude oils that the refinery takes in. Community and environmental groups, led by Communities for a Better Environment, have pushed investigators to consider the impact of Chevron’s shift, over the last decade, to crude oil with a slightly higher sulfur content. Sulfur is more corrosive and might have contributed to the pipe leak that sparked the fire, said Greg Karras, a senior scientist at CBE. The air district, EPA and CSB all said sulfur content would be included in their investigations.

“It’s a big step forward that the agencies confirmed that they are going to take the community’s advice,” said Karras. He said CBE hoped to work with the agencies to refine the briefings and develop more of a dialogue, “so it doesn’t feel quite so paternalistic.”

“I don’t think they came here to talk down to us and be yelled at – that wasn’t the intention,” Karras said.


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