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Chevron Settles with California Over Richmond Oil Refinery Fire, Even as Recent Inspections Uncover New Safety Violations


Five years after an oil refinery fire sent thousands of Richmond, California residents to the hospital, Chevron Corp. has struck an agreement with Cal/OSHA to spend millions on safety improvements at the facility.

Chevron Refinery Fire Caused by Corroding Pipe

The Chevron oil refinery fire broke out on the evening of August 6, 2012, following the release of a vapor cloud from a corroded and leaky pipe. The cloud ignited within just a few minutes, creating a wall of fire and sending a plume of toxic gas and smoke into the sky over Richmond.

By some miracle, none of the 20 workers attempting to repair the leaking pipe were injured in the blaze. However, 15,000 area residents sought treatment at local hospitals for breathing problems and eye irritation.

Cal/OSHA’s investigation determined that Chevron had ignored more than a decade of warnings about corroding pipes at the Richmond refinery.

“That pipe had gone from a quarter-inch thick to no thicker than a Coke can,” Garrett  Brown, a senior safety official with Cal/OSHA in 2012, recently told NBC Bay Area. “Management was willing to endanger the lives of Chevron employees, contractor employees and the community at large in order to save a few dollars by not shutting down a unit so it could be properly repaired and maintained. And that’s a decision they make for pure corporate profit reasons.”

In 2013, California fined Chevron nearly $1 million in connection with the Richmond refinery fire. Then late last month, Cal/OSHA announced a new agreement that requires Chevron to spend $20 million on safety improvements at the facility, including the replacement of any carbon steel piping used to transport corrosive liquids with chrome-alloy piping, which is better able to resist corrosion.

California State Inspectors Cite Chevron Richmond Refinery Over Pressure Relief Valves

While regulators are optimistic that conditions at the Chevron oil refinery in Richmond are much safer today, a recent investigation by NBC Bay Area found that the facility is still being cited for safety violations.

Just last year, for example, state inspectors cited the Chevron refinery for failing to comply with industry standards governing pressure relief valves. Problems with the valves, which control the process in the refinery’s volatile Catalytic Cracking Unit, could lead to another fire.

A senior scientist at Communities for a Better Environment also told NBC Bay Area that the Chevron refinery’s recent decision to switch to a cheaper crude oil could lead to more corrosion problems in the future.

“There’s something like a thousand miles of process piping in that refinery, and the vast majority of it hasn’t been replaced,” he said. “So we’re stuck with a refinery that’s going to blow up again as a result.”

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