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Smoky Chevron flare alarms residents, spews sulfur dioxide into air

on August 11, 2021

A day after the Richmond Chevron refinery belched a plume of heavy smoke that wafted across the Richmond skyline, the company said the issue prompted a low-level community warning and was “quickly corrected.”

Richmond interim fire Chief Michael Smith told the San Francisco Chronicle that the billowing smoke captured in photos on social media Tuesday afternoon was caused by a low-level flaring incident.

The level is the company’s lowest and was issued “to keep residents informed,” Tyler Kruzich, a Chevron spokesperson, told Richmond Confidential on Wednesday. “A safety flare was activated for a short time due to a process upset that was quickly corrected,” he said.

Chevron told the state the unplanned release spewed an unknown amount of sulfur dioxide vapor into the air. It was reported to the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services at 2;40 p.m. and at 2:52 p.m., the report noted that the flaring was ongoing. It stated that there was no impact on waterways.

On Twitter, a San Pablo resident posted a video of the plume and noted “no shelter in place sirens have gone off.”  And a Richmond resident tweeted, “Black smoke can be seen across the San Rafael bridge.”

On its website, Chevron said it works hard to prevent flaring, which it called “a visible part of our comprehensive network of safety systems designed to keep equipment running safely and reliably.” For a Level 1 event, the site says monitoring and tracking is required but no community action is needed.

Kruzich residents monitor air quality data at richmondairmonitoring.org.

Flares have been a recurring source of air, water and soil pollution around the plant, which set up on the San Francisco Bay in 1902. The billowing smoke associated with flares is a reminder of the 2012 refinery fire that forced thousands of people to seek medical treatment and led to a protracted legal fight with the city. In 2018, Chevron agreed to pay Richmond $5 million to settle the case.

Last year, Chevron agreed to pay the Bay Area Air Quality Management District $147,000 to cover 29 air quality violations that took place at the refinery during the two years leading up to the fire.

And in March, a quarter-inch hole opened in a Chevron pipeline, spilling 500 to 750 gallons of a diesel-water mixture into the bay. An independent firm is still investigating that spill. One of the questions raised was why Chevron took 40 minutes to contact the National Response Center about the spill when California regulations require immediate reporting.

The spill reignited a push by many community members and environmentalists to close the refinery, which is Richmond’s largest employer and taxpayer, and benefactor to a number of area nonprofits. It also sparked a lawsuit from commercial fishers who say Chevron’s practices contaminate the bay, threatening their livelihood. 

Contra Costa County and state officials said in March that the investigation could take about six months and that the findings would be presented at a public meeting.

MAP: An overview of every toxic, contaminated site in Richmond

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