The massive fire at the Chevron Richmond, CA, refinery is out, but now the questions begin: What happened? Could Chevron have prevented the accident by shutting down a crude unit that began leaking hours before the eruption? Did the company move fast enough to alert neighbors?
Federal, state and local agencies all want to know the answers.
Firefighters finally put out the fire Wednesday afternoon, but the company said the damage is so severe the plant’s ability to produce refined petroleum appears limited — a situation that is pushing up gas prices across the Western United States. No timetable has been set for repairs to be complete.
At least five separate investigations, including one by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, will target a pipe that burst after two hours of monitored leaking, sparking the fire.
“Any time you lose containment of hydrocarbons, it’s a critical situation,” said Jeff Clark, field representative for United Steelworkers Local 5, which represents about 600 operators and mechanics at the Richmond plant. “And obviously from our point of view, the majority of the time, shutting down the unit is the safest thing to do.”
The San Ramon-based oil giant said shutting down the plant is a difficult call.
“To do an unplanned shutdown of a plant is fairly dangerous,” said Mark Ayers, the refinery’s chief of emergency services. “While we were looking at our options, the leak got worse and the fire broke out.”
The Richmond No. 4 crude unit is the starting point of the refining process at Northern California’s largest such facility, which processes up to 240,000 barrels of oil feedstock a day. In the processor, crude oil heats to between 700 and 800 degrees, sometimes chemically treated, to create jet fuel, gasoline, diesel fuel and other byproducts.
The leak found Wednesday was in a pipe that separates the diesel-like mixture. Originally about 20 drips a minute, the leak suddenly “broke loose” as refinery employees attempted to take off the insulated aluminum shield around the pipe, said Randy Sawyer, Contra Costa County’s chief environmental health and hazardous materials officer.
Crews evacuated, and the vapor caught fire so quickly a Chevron fire truck ended up destroyed in the blaze.
Chevron officials pushed the notification button 10 minutes after the fire started, Sawyer said, automatically sounding sirens and alerting authorities. He said that was a reasonable response time.
Keeping production flowing is often a driving force in decision making at all refineries, Clark said.
“Any disruption in production affects profits,” he said. “As far as the overall industry goes? Yeah, we have concerns that sometimes decisions are made to fix things without disrupting production.”
Chevron representatives said Wednesday safety is top priority.
While a controlled burn smoldered Wednesday morning, a leak from a valve above the first fire dripped onto the burn and caused a small secondary fire near the upper valve, a Chevron spokesman said.
Chevron called Richmond firefighters, and they combined to extinguish the controlled burn and secondary fire. The company said there still was a risk a small fire could break out in the lines, so they are monitoring the site.
Meanwhile, Western Contra Costa residents raised a new round of questions on how to best coexist with their neighbors. About 1,700 had visited county hospitals since Monday evening, said Pat Frost, director of Contra Costa’s Emergency Medical Services. More than 1,000 residents filed claims against Chevron.