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Chemical Safety Board Report Confirms CalOSHA findings of Extreme Corrosion in Chevron Refinery Fire

Diane Bailey

Posted February 13, 2013 in Curbing Pollution, Environmental Justice, Health and the Environment

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Another report released this week from the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) confirms extreme corrosion as the cause of the fire at Chevron’s Richmond refinery last August.  The report supports CalOSHA’s recent citation released last month for “willful serious” failure by Chevron to head maintenance recommendations and protect workers and the community.

The CSB report details the corrosion and factors leading to the pipe rupture that caused the fire.  During the incident, 19 workers were engulfed in a hydrocarbon vapor cloud after Chevron failed to shutdown the leaking crude oil processing unit. The highly flammable and toxic gases then ignited with the workers escaping just in time to avoid serious injury.

We don’t know exactly which chemicals were released by the fire or how much, but we do know that pollution from upsets and accidents are in many cases more than annual emissions from standard operations.  In fact, according to an investigation of 18 Texas oil refineries between 2003 and 2008, “upset events” were found to occur often, with some single upset events producing more toxic air pollution than what was reported to the federal TRI database for the entire year. A single upset event can produce as much as 2.5 million pounds of sulfur dioxide (SO2) and more carbon monoxide (CO) than would be emitted from annual use of hundreds or in some cases thousands of cars.

The image below shows what the 1976 vintage pipe looked like after it burst, prompting questions:

chevron ruptured pipe.jpg

Is this what a state of the art refinery looks like?
Why didn’t Chevron replace the pipe when its own experts recommended action in 2002?

What other parts of the refinery suffer from similar corrosion?
Could the extreme corrosion found here be a result of higher sulfur, dirtier crudes increasingly being used and accelerating corrosion rates far beyond conventional prediction ranges?

What kinds of risks does this extreme corrosion pose to workers?  The community?

Most importantly, what is Chevron doing about it? Are they replacing all the piping in the refinery?  Are they meeting the best practices for health, safety and the environment?

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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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