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Chevron refinery fire

Chevron must replace pipes at Richmond refinery, purchase supplies for Richmond Fire Department: EPA settlement

on November 17, 2018

As Wanda Cooper biked home through the thick haze of smoke rising from a fire at the Chevron oil refinery, her eyes began to burn and her throat to close up.

“I couldn’t hardly breathe,” she says.

Six years after a pipeline fire at Chevron U.S.A. Inc.’s oil refinery in Richmond sent Cooper and thousands more to the emergency room, the company agreed last month to spend more than $160 million to make major safety improvements at all of its domestic refineries.

But the settlement didn’t seem to mean much to Cooper and other local residents interviewed by Richmond Confidential in recent weeks. They’ve lived through decades of accidents at the refinery spewing noxious air through their neighborhoods.

“Yeah, right,” she said, after learning about what Chevron had agreed to do. “They should have been done something a long time ago.”  

The Richmond refinery is one of five nationwide where vulnerable carbon steel piping must be replaced within the next ten years, according to the terms of the settlement Chevron reached on October 24 with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Justice and the Mississippi Department of Air Quality.

That’s the same type of piping that became corroded and leaky, causing the 2012 fire, according to a study released by the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board. That study said Chevron had failed to repair the thinning pipe despite identifying it as potentially dangerous years before the fire.

In a surprise to fire officials, the settlement also requires Chevron to supply the City of Richmond Fire Department with $4.6 million in new equipment.

The national settlement follows an investigation into the fire that led the environmental agency to charge the company with violating the Clean Air Act, a federal law that regulates air emissions. According to the environmental agency’s findings, Chevron failed to follow established provisions aimed at preventing the accidental release of hazardous chemicals.

More than 15,000 residents sought medical treatment for respiratory, skin, and eye ailments related to the fire that choked the Richmond skyline in a thick plume of black smoke. Six Chevron employees were injured in the fire. Chevron has also faced more than 20,000 legal claims from local residents, resulting in multiple payouts totaling over $10 million.

In last month’s settlement, Chevron denied liability and maintained it did not violate any federal or state statutes or regulations. The company said it had already made upgrades to operations and refinery piping after the fire.

“We believe the measures build on existing efforts we have in place to enhance safe practices,” said Katie Lohec, an external affairs specialist for Chevron, in an interview with Richmond Confidential.

The  $4.6 million of new equipment Chevron must purchase for the Richmond Fire Department includes three new fire engines, one new fire truck and a range of emergency response equipment. The department will get new fire hoses, harnesses, face masks and chest compression machines.

The equipment list is “very significant,” Richmond Fire Marshall Eric Govan said in an interview, explaining that it positions the fire department to better respond in emergencies.

Nationwide, Chevron will spend $10 million to support emergency response in the communities surrounding its oil refineries.

Chevron did not disclose how much of the total settlement amount would be allocated for its Richmond refinery.

The announcement follows a string of settlements the company has made after being accused at the local, state and federal level of serious violations following investigations into the 2012 refinery fire.

It comes five years after Chevron pleaded no contest to criminal charges related to the fire and paid $2 million as part of a plea deal with state and county prosecutors.

Last year, the company reached a $20 million settlement with the California Department of Industrial Relations, Occupational Safety and Health Division. The company agreed to replace carbon steel piping with chrome-alloy piping, improve equipment monitoring and add new training for operators and fire personnel.  The agency had cited Chevron for 17 workplace health and safety violations.

This May, the city of Richmond accepted from the company a payment of $5 million to settle a lawsuit the city filed in 2013 for damages caused by the fire.

The city was not involved in the EPA settlement and is not a part of any active litigation pertaining to the 2012 fire, said Alison Cordova, a lawyer who provided outside counsel to the city in its May settlement with Chevron.

Many Richmond residents had not heard about the latest settlement but expressed a general sense of distrust toward Chevron.

Larry Mobley furrowed his eyebrows when the terms of the settlement were relayed to him by a reporter.

“I haven’t been paid yet,” Mobley said, adding that he suffered permanent lung damage after the fire and is part of a pending lawsuit against the company.  

Mobley, who now lives at an apartment building for seniors in North Richmond, said he was homeless at the time of the fire, and took refuge at a cousin’s house.

“Now I have to use inhalers,” he said. “I went to the emergency room and I’ve been going to the doctor ever since.”

Ken Wallace remembers waiting hours in the emergency room to be seen by doctors for respiratory issues. Later, he filed a medical claim against Chevron, but never heard back about compensation.

When he heard about the terms of this latest settlement, Wallace expressed mixed feelings.

“I feel left out,” said Wallace. “Left out of the system.”

“All this money they’re spending, great that they’re doing that, but people affected by it are just left out of the loop,” added Wallace.

Ken Wallace was one of the thousands of Richmond residents who sought emergency care after the 2012 Chevron refinery fire. (Photo by Ravleen Kaur)

Cooper, who took rest inside a North Richmond church last week to alleviate the symptoms triggered by wildfire smoke, shared Wallace’s concern about being kept in the dark.

“Everytime something happen with Chevron, we be the last to know,” said Cooper, who has lived in North Richmond all her life.

Mayor Tom Butt said he wants to see cities getting out of the fossil fuel industry, but takes what he characterizes as a realistic approach in working with Chevron, which he said “isn’t going anywhere.”

He expressed satisfaction with the company’s efforts at modernization in the years since the fire.

“I think huge strides were made,” said Butt.

But Richmond activists who have long pushed for Chevron to make significant changes were unimpressed with the terms of the settlement.

“It’s baloney,” said Torm Nompraseurt, who works with the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, a local environmental justice nonprofit. “They were supposed to do that a long time ago,” he said, referring to the plans to replace vulnerable pipes.

Six years ago, when the blaze ignited at a Chevron crude oil distillation unit, he was chatting with neighbors outside his apartment near the railroad tracks in North Richmond. A few neighbors ran outside, he says, and said something about the explosion, which was one mile away.

Nompraseurt, a longtime environmental activist, says he knew what was coming for residents downwind of the refinery.

“I starting yelling for everybody to go back inside, to take their children back inside,” he said.

Soon after, the county urged all residents to “shelter-in-place’’ by finding a safe location to remain indoors.

Nompraseurt grew up in Laos, he says, and was living there during the Vietnam War, when U.S. dropped two million tons of bombs on the country.

He and other Laotian refugees who settled in Richmond remember the toxic impacts of U.S. warfare waged through the herbicide Agent Orange in their home country.

“It got into their water, their vegetables, their animals,” said Nompraseurt, speaking of Laotians whose livelihoods were impacted by the chemical spray.

Living in Richmond, Nompraseurt says, he and others in the Laotian community have been re-traumatized by the toxic exposures from the Chevron refinery.

“We came here and thought we were safe,” he said. “But the same thing is happening here.”

Andres Soto, a Richmond-based community organizer for the nonprofit Communities for A Better Environment, believes the settlement does not do enough.

In 2014, his nonprofit lobbied for Chevron to shore up Doctors Medical Center, which was a community hospital in San Pablo,  as a reparation for the medical care it provided to thousands of Richmond residents in the wake of the 2012 fire. But the effort failed to save Doctors from its impending closure and it finally closed its doors in 2015. That means Richmond residents have fewer options and often must travel farther for emergency care.

Soto was disappointed to find last week’s settlement did not contain funds for hospitals.

“Next time there is an explosion,” he asked, “where are people going to go?”

But Soto is cautiously hopeful that language in the settlement could help facilitate the implementation of cleaner refinery technologies.

The groundwork, he said, has been laid for new technology to be adopted.

In September, the California Air Resources Board released a plan directing local air districts to improve air monitoring at state oil refineries. It calls on communities to direct local refineries to install new equipment that will reduce carbon emissions and other air pollutants.  

“It’s a convergence,” he said, that could “work out to be significant,”  said Soto. “We are going to wait and watch.”

(header photo by Tawanda Kanhema)

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