Public skeptical of Contra Costa County’s probe into Chevron’s 2021 spill
on July 18, 2023
The Richmond community expressed distrust and skepticism Monday over a Contra Costa County-funded review of Chevron’s investigation into its 2021 diesel spill in San Francisco Bay.
AcuTech, a consultant contracted by the county, released its report about the spill last week and then presented it in a public meeting in Richmond, confirming Chevron’s findings that a corroded pipe and faulty leak detection system caused the spill.
Around 800 gallons of a diesel-water mixture spilled into the bay on Feb. 9, 2021. Chevron waited about an hour before notifying authorities of the leak, despite regulations that said notification must be “immediate.” AcuTech concluded that Chevron “made all reasonable efforts to meet the requirements of the Contra Costa Health notification requirements.”
“When the fox is watching that henhouse, it’s not a terribly big surprise that they’re cleared of all wrongdoings,” said Ben Eichenberg, San Francisco Baykeeper’s staff attorney.
Two members of the public commented at the meeting that the investigation was not transparent or independent, since it was a third-party review of Chevron’s own report of the spill and was conducted by a consultant that had done work for Chevron. Multiple people called for the county to change its accident investigation process and to conduct an independent investigation.
“What the community was asking for was an independent investigation, and all of this shows that it wasn’t that independent,” said Richmond City Council member Claudia Jimenez.
Despite Contra Costa Health Services initially promising to conduct an independent investigation, it ultimately decided to hire a third party to review Chevron’s findings.
The county appointed an eight-person oversight committee to review bids by four consultants. AcuTech was the only bidder to report doing work for Chevron in the previous three years. The committee consisted of representatives from the public, Contra Costa Health Services, and Chevron.
“Chevron was involved in every aspect of this, including choosing their own oversight,” Eichenberg said.
Jimenez wants the county to conduct the truly independent investigation that the City Council initially requested. That option would be on the table, if there were lingering questions that AcuTech’s review couldn’t resolve.
Contra Costa Health Services, however, is not pursuing any additional investigations into the spill.
“We feel like AcuTech’s work was adequate for this investigation,” said Nicole Heath, director of Contra Costa Health’s Hazardous Materials program.
The spill was stopped in about two hours, and Chevron commenced its own internal investigation into the root causes of the accident. AcuTech said Chevron “took the incident very seriously.”
While acknowledging that oversight from the county is critical, Chevron spokesperson Linsi Crain said that the company always does its own investigations of accidents because refineries are highly technical and complicated systems. The company team that investigated the spill had over 200 years of experience.
“It would be hard to get the expertise within a government agency to do the level of investigation that we’re able to do,” said Crain.
Commenters in the meeting, as well as Jimenez, expressed frustration that Chevron delayed for about an hour before reporting the leak to authorities. (Health Services has since clarified the requirement to notify authorities immediately to say “as soon as possible or within 15 minutes” of discovery.) Despite acknowledging that the spill would have been less severe if the leak was identified and contained sooner, AcuTech said that Chevron made reasonable efforts to notify authorities while still maintaining good emergency response practices.
AcuTech’s report said Chevron delayed notifying authorities for about an hour to determine if the leak was from the refinery or from another shipping vessel.
Crain said the delay showed the company prioritizes safety and environmental protection over reporting. “The first responder prioritized identifying and isolating the release, evacuating non-essential personnel and activating response teams and plans,” she said.
AcuTech’s investigation was delayed for a year as Chevron negotiated with the county to protect trade secrets in its investigative report. Chevron did not share its internal investigation with AcuTech until last August.
“Contra Costa Health did not find that to be an acceptable timeline, and in other oversight committees, we are working to shorten that,” Heath said.
Crain said the holdup was with the county. “We wish the county had agreed earlier on protecting our competitive information,” she said.
Under Contra Costa’s Industrial Safety Ordinance, companies are required to share necessary information with county contractors. However, the ordinance does not have a timeline for when companies have to share that information.
Contra Costa County Supervisor John Gioia said that he believes the investigation took too long, but that the ordinance is the strongest local regulation of refineries in the country.
“The county remains committed to always ensuring there’s a transparent, open, fully objective and independent investigation into any chemical plant or refinery,” Gioia said at the meeting.
However, Eichenberg pointed out that the investigation’s delay limited transparency because it defeated most public participation on the issue.
“How are people supposed to understand what happened with the spill when you take two years to get any kind of response?” Eichenberg asked. “So if you’re touting this as being one of the best oversight statutes or regimes in the country, I think that just shows how poor, as a country and as a society, we can oversee this incredibly profitable industry.”
The report is under a 45-day public comment period, ending on Aug. 28. AcuTech will incorporate the feedback into the final report and respond to each comment. The report also will be presented to Richmond City Council and the County Board of Supervisors before being finalized.
Comments can be submitted via email to Hazmat.Arpteam@cchealth.org or by mail: Attn: Michael Dossey, Contra Costa Health Hazardous Materials Programs, 4585 Pacheco Blvd., Suite 100, Martinez, CA 94553.
This story was updated to correct a reference to the amount of experience Chevron’s investigative team has and to clarify the county requirement to immediately report leaks.
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