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County contractor with Chevron ties has yet to investigate refinery’s 2021 diesel leak

on May 16, 2022

Fifteen months after about 800 gallons of diesel spilled into San Francisco Bay from a leaking pipe at the Richmond Chevron Refinery, the public is still waiting for a promised investigation by Contra Costa County 

Chevron has filed a half dozen follow-up reports with the county between February and October 2021, as required by law. But Contra Costa Health Services has not produced the independent investigation that county officials said would take six to 12 months. In fact, the contractor Health Services hired to review Chevron’s investigative report on the spill and determine if more is required, still hasn’t received the report, according to Matthew Kaufmann, the county’s director of Hazardous Materials Programs. He said attorneys with the county and the company are still drafting an agreement allowing the county’s contractor, AcuTech, to review that report, adding that Chevron wants to protect trade secrets in the document. 

On Feb. 16, 2021, Randy Sawyer, deputy Health Services director, told Richmond City Council that CCHS would be conducting an independent investigation by request of the county Board of Supervisors. Sawyer said the county would “move forward with hiring a third party to do that investigation, who’s an expert in investigations.” It would determine “what caused the spill and what was the root cause analysis of the spill.”

However, last fall, KQED reported that Health Services had opted instead to hire a contractor to review Chevron’s internal investigation rather than conduct an independent one. When a KQED reporter asked why, Sawyer said it was in the interest of time. “The best means to do an incident investigation is as soon as possible after the incident. … Since the process to hire a third-party consultant takes time, a good incident investigation is compromised,” Sawyer said in a May 10, 2021, email. 

A day after KQED posted its story, county Supervisor John Gioia said in an email to Sawyer:  “I had a feeling that reviewing Chevron’s report, rather than doing an independent investigation would be problematic. That’s why I originally suggested an independent investigation. It’s about public trust.” 

Sawyer responded to Gioia but his remarks were redacted in emails Richmond Confidential obtained through a public records request. Asked why, Kaufmann said the conversation had shifted to a “personnel matter.” Sawyer handled Richmond Confidential’s request for county emails about the spill, providing 209 pages of documents, including emails to and from himself.

The county put together a seven-member ad hoc committee to select the contractor and oversee the spill investigation. It included two Richmond residents and officials from Health Services, the Richmond Fire Department, Contra Costa County Hazmat, Chevron and United Steelworkers, the union representing workers at the refinery. They reviewed four proposals in June, choosing two contractors to interview. In August, the committee selected AcuTech, a Washington, D.C.-area company, which offered to do the review for $95,000. It was the only bidder that reported doing work for Chevron in the past three years. And on its homepage, AcuTech highlights its work with Chevron.

Richmond Confidential reached out to all seven committee members to ask why they selected a contractor with ties to Chevron. Only Michael Dossey, who represented Health Services on the committee, commented. The committee voted without any pressure or influence from Chevron or any other party, he said. 

“Since Chevron is a global corporation, they have employed a large number of consultants over the years,” he added. 

Kaufmann said AcuTech is expected to conduct its review virtually, but could choose to do a site visit if necessary or if the ad hoc committee requests it. Under the terms of the contract, AcuTech must “hold a report-out meeting with the Oversight Committee.” 

Once the committee accepts the report, it will be shared with the public for 45 days, during which comments will be accepted. After that, AcuTech is under contract to present a draft report at a public meeting, followed by presentations of the final report to the Board of Supervisors and City Council. 

AcuTech did not respond to Richmond Confidential’s request for an interview. 

What Chevron found

In a report to the county last fall, Chevron said its initial inspection found that the diesel leak was caused by pipe corrosion and that its inspection techniques had been inadequate to detect it. 

In an emailed statement this month, Brian Hubinger, Chevron’s senior public and government affairs representative, said, “Chevron has been and will continue to cooperate with any government investigation into the February 9, 2021 incident at the Richmond Long Wharf.” He added that the company is participating in the oversight committee’s evaluation of the incident. 

The spill was spotted by a passerby who noticed a sheen on the water around 2:30 p.m., the U.S. Coast Guard reported. According to the official timeline provided by county Health Services, Chevron notified the state at 3:15 p.m.

Gioia, Richmond Mayor Tom Butt, and Richmond councilmember Claudia Jimenez have questioned why Chevron waited 45 minutes or so to report the spill, given that state regulations say spills must be reported immediately to the Office of Emergency Services.

Kaufmann said that AcuTech will examine that delay in its investigation. 

Chevron refinery flaring events raise air pollution concerns

Asked by Jimenez about the delay at the Feb. 16, 2021, council meeting, Chevron spokesperson Linsi Crain said she couldn’t address the issue because of a unified command agreement between Chevron and state and county officials investigating the leak. Under that agreement, she explained, Chevron could not speak unilaterally.

“We all speak with one voice,” she said. “We make decisions together.”

The spill response was conducted by a unified command that included Chevron along with government agencies such as county Health Services, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Coast Guard and Richmond Fire Department. The structure was designed in the 1970s to combat wildfires. By bringing together public agencies and private crews, communities were able to better fight blazes and communicate between agencies. But critics say that structure allows companies like Chevron to hide behind a consortium of other voices.

“Independence is impossible under unified command,” Ben Eichenberg, an attorney with the San Francisco Baykeeper, told Richmond City Council. Eichenberg said his group, which serves as a watchdog, has found it difficult at times to get information when agencies are only allowed to speak as a group. 

“I think a lot gets left out when you have this unified command voice,” he said.

To clean up the Chevron spill, absorbent booms were deployed, and the sun helped by breaking down hydrocarbons, allowing evaporation. Six days after the spill, rainbow sheens were visible in standing pools at Saltwater Station, a private beach where a clean-up team removed contaminated vegetation. On Feb. 23, two weeks after the spill, the unified command concluded its on-the-ground response.

This story was updated to correct an editing error. The sentence should read: Asked why, Kaufmann said the conversation had shifted to a “personnel matter.”

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