A community tour of Chevron’s Richmond refinery full of eye-popping sights
on September 30, 2014
For a second, it was hard to believe that we were just a few hundred feet from where nearly a quarter of a million barrels of oil are refined daily. With an army of caterers flipping burgers, and dozens of Chevron employees donning blue baseball shirts with “Richmond Proud” emblazoned across their chests in a major-league typeface, the tour seemed more Wrigley Field than oil field.
Chevron held its annual community tour day on Saturday, guiding more than 400 attendees through the 2,900-acre refinery on tour buses. Chevron employees ran informational booths and chatted with guests over a barbecue reception in the parking lot.
While the reception had the vibe of a Sunday picnic, the 45-minute bus tour and lunch focused on the hot-button issue facing the plant and the city itself — the refinery modernization project.
Priced at $1 billion, not only does the project promise safer, updated infrastructure for distilling crude and producing various fuels, but also calls for more green space, community interaction, jobs, and even internet access for fenceline neighborhoods. This is still contingent on a court process between Chevron and its opponents coming to an end.
In any case, Chevron employees are pumped about the project. Bharat Chavda, an engineer with experience in both South Africa and Richmond, was one of the several employees who expressed excitement about the pending upgrades.
“It’s the longest construction of a hydrogen plant in the history of the world,” he said. “We think it’s a good plan. We just hope the courts see it that way.”
To begin the tour, they escorted a group of about a dozen of us onto a jet-black luxury airport shuttle bus, outfitted with air conditioning and hardwood flooring. Garrett, a fresh-faced process engineer who knows the refinery like the back of his hand, promptly peppered us with important factoids.
Not only does the refinery provide 65 percent of the jet fuel for Bay Area airports, but they also provide 20 percent of the transportation fuels. The refinery also employs 30 firefighters, all of whom are trained in a special program at Texas A&M University to respond to petrochemical incidents.
Despite the laid-back atmosphere of the barbecue reception, Chevron’s message was loud and clear once the wheels started turning. Not only is maintenance of the facility one of their priorities, it is also important to the local community.
We passed by the manifold units of the refinery, each one as complicated as the next. While there were few employees actually walking around the property, we did see a few pedaling yellow bicycles with wide, novelty handlebars. As curious as they looked, few other modes of transportation would better accommodate the dozens of workers traversing the 2900-acre property.
Garrett explained that most of the workers are not visible because much of the refinery operations now occur using computers in blast-proof control rooms hidden from view.
“It looks like NASA in there,” he said, gesturing at a nondescript building.
With the ability to change the flow of crude and feedstocks with the press of a button, modern workers can worry less about getting up close and personal with potentially hazardous leaks.
As for the pipes themselves, Chevron has already replaced much of the old piping with 9-chrome, a sturdy steel alloy that contains at least 9 percent chromium and is more resistant to corrosion than other commonly used materials, according to Chevron officials.
Not only can workers keep their distance from the most dangerous components of the refinery, but they also perform safety checkups on the units with “real-time corrosion monitors” that update in real time. The 2012 refinery fire was blamed in part on a corroded pipe.
At one point, the shuttle stopped at a small orchard between a water reclamation pond and several storage tanks just off the aptly-named Ammonia Street. Several deer chewed on tall grass.
One person on the tour asked, “How much are you paying those deer to stay here?”
Garrett laughed. “Not sure,” he said. “I guess we pay them in grass.” Oddly enough, nobody I spoke to could figure out where the deer crossed the six-mile fence encircling the property.
Once the bus looped around, we stopped at the centerpiece of the tour — the half-built hydrogen plant. In size, it stood no bigger than a four-story building, but we were repeatedly reminded of its importance. The old hydrogen plant’s replacement will increase the efficiency of the refining process by 20 percent, Chevron officials said.
Once the tour ended, we visited a row of booths offering info on Chevron careers, technological innovation and educational initiatives. Fuel Your School, Chevron’s educational program, has already partnered with many Richmond schools, providing everything from books to spectrometers through donorschoose.org (the teachers, not Chevron, request the class materials).
Perhaps the most puzzling artifact of the tour, though, was the refinery-themed coloring book we were each given. It included happy cooling towers, a machine chugging a bottle of hydrogen, as well as a cartoon representation of greenhouse gases. “The burning process can make ‘smog makers,'” the caption reads. “The refinery has special equipment that catches these smog makers before they get away.”
Chevron Spokeswoman Melissa Ritchie expressed confidence that events like the Community Tour Day will prompt divisive voices to engage in healthy conversation. “We believe it is important to have an open and transparent dialogue with our neighbors,” she said. “[The Community Tour] was a great way to meet our neighbors and for them to see firsthand what we do and how we do it.”
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