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Chevron opens its gates to a curious crowd

on October 8, 2013

Erica Haywood got up early on Saturday and headed over to the Chevron refinery to tour the 3,000-acre facility along with hundreds of other Richmond residents. It was a sunny morning, and she was wearing a visor emblazoned with a Chevron logo.

Haywood lives in Richmond’s Fairmede-Hilltop neighborhood, about three miles from the refinery, and she began paying more attention to Chevron after the fire in August last year that sent about 15,000 people to area hospitals. “I was scared, because I’ve only lived in Richmond for a few years, and I don’t know what the procedures are, so I thought I’d come and find out more about what’s going on here,” she said.

Living close to one of the largest oil refineries on the West Coast has sparked curiosity in many of Chevron’s neighbors. The Richmond refinery has tremendous financial and environmental impact on the community. It’s the largest source of tax revenue for the city of Richmond and Contra Costa County. And the fire last year caused a public outcry over safety and environmental standards at the facility.

Not everyone who came to the open house was motivated by the fire, though. Richmond resident Doug Gay returned for his third tour of the refinery. “I heard that they have some new construction going on,” Gay said, explaining why he came back. “I think it would be a good place for my kids to work some day,” he added.

Saturday’s event was the first community tour Chevron has given since the fire last August, and organizers reported that turnout was strong.

Planning analyst and chemical engineer Tim Burchfield led members of the press on a separate tour of the grounds.

The refinery’s main function is to convert crude oil into gasoline, jet fuel, diesel and lubricants, Burchfield said. Some of the refinery’s finished product is consumed locally. The Richmond refinery supplies 65 percent of the Bay Area’s jet fuel and 20 percent of its gasoline, he said.

Pipeline Safety

“This is a good point to let your eyes take in all the complexity of the plant,” said Burchfield as the van paused a few hundred feet from the site of the 2012 fire.

There are about 5,000 miles of pipe at the refinery – nearly enough to stretch from Richmond to New York City and back. Some of the pipes are skinny; some are thick. Some pipes are old and rusted, while others appear new. The pipes run along the ground, and they curve and arch over one another.

Burchfield said the 2012 fire forced Chevron to reevaluate its “process safety,” and to focus more resources on “keeping material in the pipe, where it’s supposed to be, and where it’s supposed to go.”

A special staff of inspectors monitors pipeline safety, Burchfield said.

Halted modernization project

Burchfield stopped the bus at the construction site of the refinery’s new hydrogen plant, which will replace the current plant that was built in the 1960s. The new hydrogen plant will be more efficient, enabling the refinery to process crude oils with higher sulfur content, he said.

The half-built hydrogen plant, which looks like a group of beige columns surrounded by scaffolding, is part of the refinery’s “modernization project.” Work was halted in 2010 when an appeals court ruled that the Environmental Impact Report for the project was inadequate in addressing greenhouse gas emissions.

The revised draft EIR is expected to come out early next year.

“It’s all just been parked,” he said. “It was a dramatic impact to stop a project that was already in process.” The construction was employing more than 1,000 people, Burchfield added.

Other parts of the refinery hummed with activity. “We are in an industrial place where things aren’t perfect and pretty,” Burchfield told reporters, speaking over loud hissing noises as the bus passed by the complex cracking and hydro-processing facilities.

Back at the parking lot, Point Richmond resident Don Woodrow, who had been on previous tours, tried to put it to words: “This is something to see, and you think to yourself, ‘How on Earth could this not go wrong?’” he said. “It is so complicated.”

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