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CalOSHA Investigation: Chevron Intentionally and Knowingly Failed to Comply with Safety Standards that Lead to Richmond Refinery Fire

Diane Bailey

Posted January 30, 2013 in Environmental Justice, Health and the Environment

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The fifteen thousand people who streamed into Bay-Area hospitals knew there was something terribly wrong with Chevron’s Richmond refinery when it caught on fire on August 6th, 2012.  What they did not now is that, according to a CalOSHA investigation released today, Chevron USA “intentionally and knowingly failed to comply with state safety standards” leading to a catastrophic fire that put workers and the surrounding community at serious risk.

What happened on August 6th?  A severely corroded pipe in one of the crude units (where they begin processing crude oil into gas and diesel) began leaking.  Chevron chose not to shut down the leaking unit and instead ordered workers to remove insulation.  The pipe then ruptured, igniting a massive fire.  Luckily but narrowly, the workers escaped without serious injuries.

CalOSHA’s investigation of the incident has resulted in a total of 25 citations, many of them with the highest classification of “willful serious” and totaling roughly $1 million in penalties, the highest fine of its kind in California history.  Of most concern, CalOSHA found that:

  • Chevron did not follow the recommendations of its own experts and inspectors who first began warning back in 2002 that the piping that ruptured should have been replaced.
  • When that pipe began leaking, Chevron failed to follow its own emergency shutdown procedures, putting workers at the site and thousands of area residents at extreme risk.

The Chevron Richmond plant is the largest polluter in all of California, making the health and safety standards that much more important.  In addition to all the pollution from this facility, there is a cloud of fear and anxiety hanging over the workers and the community of Richmond.  When will the next accident happen?  Will it be deadly?  Is it safe for me and my family to live near the refinery?

While Chevron claims that it intends to compensate community members with “valid claims” (what does that mean?), monetary compensation will not address the ongoing health and safety concerns among workers and the community.  As Chevron continues to use dirtier, higher sulfur and more corrosive grades of crude oil at the refinery, we can expect similar incidents and higher pollution levels.

As an engineer, it’s shocking to see the photos and reports from CalOSHA and other agencies, showing pieces of piping that were corroded by 80 percent with little more than a shell of the original pipe holding things together.  This kind of shoddy and seriously negligent maintenance is not what you expect to see from one of the largest companies in the world (Chevron Corporation earned more than $200 billion in revenue last year).  It poses a deadly safety risk to workers and residents alike.

The Chevron Richmond refinery urgently needs a safety face-lift.  Every recommendation from CalOSHA must be implemented immediately, and the use of dirtier, more corrosive and dangerous heavy crude oils must cease.  Chevron needs to live up to its claims of caring about the environment and safeguarding its employees.  The Richmond facility needs to be upgraded to meet modern safety and environmental standards to remove that cloud of pollution and fear hanging over workers and the community.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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