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Chevron Corp. knew for years of a problem with a corroded pipe that caused the massive fire last year at its refinery in Richmond, CA, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board said.

The August fire at the 245,000 barrel-a-day refinery near San Francisco burned for hours, sending a column of thick, black smoke over the San Francisco Bay and causing an estimated 15,000 area residents with eye and respiratory problems to visit emergency rooms.

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The board, an independent entity that investigates industrial accidents, said Chevron metallurgists and inspectors had warned the company as early as 2002 about the pipe’s potential to cause a major accident, but failed to replace it.

“This report confirms what Chevron already knew — that the pipe was severely corroded and should have been replaced — but failed to act on before the August fire,” said Ellen Widess, head of the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which helped with the investigation.

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The fire started in the crude-distillation unit, the first stop in the refining process where crude oil cooks at more than 600 degrees Fahrenheit before going to other units. The Chemical Safety Board criticized Chevron for not shutting down the unit while employees searched for the source of the leak fluid, which eventually turned into a vapor cloud that injured six workers.

“Continuing to troubleshoot the problem and having firefighters remove insulation searching for a leak while flammable hydrocarbons were flowing through the leaking pipe was inconsistent with good safety practices,” said Board Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso.

Cal/OSHA in January levied nearly $1 million in fines against Chevron after citing the company with 25 workplace-safety violations. The Chemical Safety Board does not have the power to levy fines or citations.

Chevron said it would appeal the citations. The San Ramon, CA-based oil company, which is still conducting an internal investigation into the accident, said it would replace any pipes in the refinery that were “unsuitable for service.”

“We are implementing corrective actions that will strengthen management oversight, process safety, mechanical integrity and leak response,” Chevron spokesman Sean Comey said.

Chevron expects to restart the crude unit by the end of the first quarter, Comey said.

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