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Diane Bailey’s Blog

Getting Chevroned in Richmond

Diane Bailey

Posted August 6, 2014

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Two years after a catastrophic fire at Chevron’schevron-richmond-refinery.jpg Richmond, California refinery sent 15,000 residents to medical centers and 20 workers narrowly escaped with their lives, the oil giant won approval to expand that facility and begin processing even more corrosive fuels.  As the two year anniversary of the incident passes, it is hard to see any significant improvement in safety at that refinery, despite the many fines, reprimands, recommendations and even criminal charges.

Chevron’s “modernization” project approved by the City of Richmond on July 29th fortunately included a lot of benefits to the local community – things like investments in renewable energy - but glaringly lacked clean air and safety measures.  In fact, the commitments in the final package did have one safety measure to replace old piping in the crude units, which is where the August 2012 fire took place, prompting the question: They haven’t gotten around yet to replacing corroded pipes in the area of the refinery that most recently failed?  What are they waiting for?

Here is a timeline of events showing how Chevron moved from singeing lungs in Richmond with a massive fire in 2012 to twisting arms into approving a massive expansion in 2014:

  • August 6th, 2012, corroded pipes gave way to a vapor cloud and major fire that could be seen throughout the region; 20 workers narrowly escaped the scene, and thousands of residents had trouble breathing and flooded medical centers.
  • January 30th, 2013 CalOSHA released an investigation, finding that Chevron USA “intentionally and knowingly failed to comply with state safety standards” leading to a catastrophic fire on August 6, 2012.  The agency issued 25 citations, totaling roughly $1 million in penalties, the highest fine of its kind in California history. 
  • February 13, 2013, the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) in an ongoing investigation, confirmed extreme corrosion as the cause of the fire at Chevron’s Richmond refinery on August 6, 2012.  
  • July 23, 2013, The City of Richmond attempted to address ongoing concerns about safety at the Chevron refinery by considering a resolution to investigate and abate hazardous conditions, but the Safety First effort was scuttled by disruptions within the City Council.
    • August 5th, 2013, the California Attorney General and Contra Costa County District Attorney file joint criminal charges against Chevron carrying $2 million in fines and restitution for actions related to the fire at the Richmond refinery last year; Chevron pleaded no contest.
    • December 17th, 2013, US EPA fined Chevron for 49 failures to effectively operate a risk management plan for the refinery, costing up to $37,500 per violation per day. EPA also found 13 failures to report releases of pollution from the refinery over the last three years.
    • March 18, 2014, Chevron formally reintroduced the “Modernization” Project proposal, which could bring in much dirtier, higher sulfur oil.  Based on documentation for the project, CBE discovered that the refinery has a serious problem with excess “condensable” (secondary fine) particulate matter emissions from the cracking unit (Fluid Catalytic Cracking Unit or FCCU).
    • April 8, 2014, US EPA issued a memo about “condensable” PM emissions, clarifying that these emissions have been regulated since January 2011 and the agency continues to support its standard measurement protocol for these emissions (“Method 202”).
    • May 20, 2014, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (Air District) sent a letter to the City of Richmond asserting that Chevron was in compliance for PM emissions and – in direct contradiction to the recent US EPA memo – test methods to measure the finest “condensable” PM emissions are “in flux.” A news investigation the following month confirmed that the air district was looking the other way when it comes to the finest and most hazardous PM emissions from refineries. Richmond PC Chevron Mod 7 10 14.JPG
    • July 10th, 2014, the City of Richmond Planning Commission adopted the Chevron Modernization project with a strong set of conditions including clean air andsafety measures; Chevron promptly contested the conditions, appealing to the City Council.
    • July 16, 2014, a small fire broke out near the cracking unit at Chevron Richmond, as if to remind everyone of the important of preserving the clean air and safety measures adopted by the Planning Commission.
    • July 21, 2014, air district board members cautioned staff not to provide public testimony on the Chevron proposal at the City of Richmond in upcoming hearing. (see webcast of Stationary Source Committee meeting here)  Executive Officer Broadbent remarked several times that the air district must protect facilities (not people).
    • July 22, 2014, Executive Officer Broadbent testifies at the Richmond City Council hearing on Chevron that the project would not increase air pollution and that Chevron is in compliance with PM emission limits.
    • July 29, 2014, the City of Richmond adopts the Chevron “Modernization” project with a comprehensive package of measures with generous donations for various City programs, but that deliberately excludes meaningful clean air and safety measures.  One woman told the council: "When that money is gone, the refinery will still be here for decades. Don't give our kids backpacks and ice cream and then give them asthma and cancer."

This chain of events underscores that Chevron is a Corporation that is fundamentally serving its bottom line, not the public interest. Nothing surprising there.  But of all the public agencies sharply rebuking Chevron for its misdeeds, the Bay Area air district stands out in contrast defending Chevron publicly, obscuring information about potential excess pollution, and seeming to act more in the interest of oil industries than to protect public health and improve air quality. 

Next month, the air district will consider a new refinery rule proposal and related actions at its September 3rd Board meeting.  Join us in demanding that the air district prevent increases in refinery pollution, stem the flow of the dirtiest, extreme crude oil into the Bay Area and protect the disproportionately impacted communities around refineries.

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Michael BerndtsonAug 11 2014 12:12 PM

You may want to take a drive around the south shore of lake Michigan. The BP Whiting plant went through a $4 billion upgrade to process heavy crude from Alberta (diluted tar sands bitumen). It went online earlier this year. Based simply on my own sense of smell and smell memory, while driving the Indiana toll road to the Chicago Skyway earlier this month, the 1960s are back, man. Can you dig it? (Commenter's note: smells and smell memory are absolutely not quantifiable, verifiable, scientifically accurate or even remotely actionable.) No, I don't mean Haight-Ashbury summer of love 1960s, bay area residents may be familiar with. I mean that pungent sulfur smell wafting over Northwest Indiana. I have no idea if the smell had anything to do with BP Whiting or if I imagined it. It could have been sludge drying out in the sun from the Indiana harbor dredging project. Who knows. But it did trigger memories of family vacations. A family and dog overstuffed in an air conditioned-less station wagon with windows closed from South Shore in Chicago to about Saugatuck, Michigan. Windows briefly open to expel Molly's occasional smells. Molly was the family golden retriever. Not a sibling.

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