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Gray smoke billows from the distance.

Veil of fire and smoke over Richmond from what Chevron says is a flare

on November 27, 2023

The sky over Richmond turned black with billowing smoke around 4 p.m. Monday, with flames shooting skyward from the Chevron refinery in what the company called a flaring event.

Chevron said a power outage caused the flare, which at 5 p.m. was still blazing and had not prompted an evacuation. The wind apparently was carrying the smoke away from Contra Costa County and into Marin County, according to a post on Contra Costa County Supervisor John Gioia’s Facebook page.

“County Health is working with Marin officials to determine if they need to notify Marin residents,” Gioia said in the post. “If the situation changes, notification will be provided in Contra Costa.”

He called the flare significant but “not a fire,” adding that the Bay Area Air Quality Management District and Contra Costa county Haz Mat were on site, investigating.

Chevron notified Contra Costa Health of the flare at 3:45 p.m., the Health Department said on its website. Hours later, the flare illuminated the evening sky over Richmond and was visible for miles. For Richmond residents, it was eerily reminiscent of the 2012 Chevron fire that injured six workers and sent 15,000 people to emergency rooms for breathing problems and other issues.

“Visually it’s not a fire like the last event was, it’s clear that it’s flaring,” said longtime Richmond resident Daniel Butt. “But visually, this is as big of a dark smoke plume as from that big refinery fire in 2012.”

BAAQMD said it had received more than 50 complaints from residents and is monitoring air quality.

Jocelyn Ortega, who lives near Stege Elementary School, knew something was wrong from the “intense smell of burning and gas” that hit her when she stepped out to do laundry Monday afternoon. “This is a health issue, especially for those with respiratory issues, and I didn’t even get a notification,” she said. “They should at least tell the community to stay indoors and close windows.”

Contra Costa County’s Community Warning System issued only a Level 1 alert, which requires no action from the public.

Richmond Mayor Eduardo Martinez encouraged residents to call BAAQMD. In a written statement, he said, “This incident (which is not uncommon) is another troubling reminder of the environmental and health challenges we face with having the second largest refinery in California as our neighbor.”

Chart showing flares by all Bay Area refineries, including Chevron, which had a high of 39 in 2019, 24 in 2021 and 23 in 2022.
Bay Area Air Quality Management District flare chart

Connie Cho, a policy strategist at the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, said there should be consequences for Chevron. “A flaring event that covers the Bay with dark smoke isn’t normal, and the County shouldn’t treat it as such,” Cho told Richmond Confidential in a text message.

The last flaring event at the refinery was on Aug. 23, “due to process unit upset,” according to BAAQMD. Last year, Chevron had 23 such events, BAAQMD data shows. And in 2021, it had 24, including two in October that blanketed part of the city with a sulfur-like smell, forcing Richmond High School and two elementary schools to close.

Monday’s flare, Gioia said, was “due to an electrical substation issue at the refinery.”

The Governor’s Office of Emergency Services said the flare was being monitored for any release of sulfur dioxide, or SO2, which can irritate eyes and mucous membranes and make breathing difficult for people with respiratory conditions.

“A series of unplanned unit shutdowns caused outdoor flaring which could potentially lead to a release of SO2. No vapor cloud has been created and an investigation is underway. Cleanup and repairs are being conducted by Chevron personnel,” read the Hazardous Materials Spill Report on the Emergency Services’ website Monday evening.

On its Facebook page, Chevron said, “Flares are highly regulated safety devices and are an important part of keeping the Refinery running safely.”

In the aftermath of the 2012 fire, Chevron was ordered to pay $2 million in fines and pleaded no contest to six charges filed by the California Attorney General’s Office and the Contra Costa District Attorney’s Office. It also faced over 20,000 legal claims from local residents, resulting in payouts totaling over $10 million. In a settlement with the state Department of Occupational Safety and Health, Chevron agreed to spend around $20 million in equipment and safety upgrades.

After Monday’s flare, Chevron suggested residents monitor air quality in real time through its webpage.

(Top photo of the flare from about 7 miles away, by Ana Tellez-Witrago)

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