East Bay News

Chevron: Fire caused by hydrocarbon vapor leak

Tuesday, August 07, 2012
Richmond residents furious at Chevron Chevron refinery fire Contra Costa Health Services says more than 18,000 people were notified within minutes of the refinery incident. Sky7 HD flew over the Chevron refinery in Richmond Tuesday afternoon to take a look at the fire damage. Chevron refinery fire Refinery fire in Richmond Refinery fire fully contained but continues to burn Chevron refinery fire in Richmond.

Chevron is apologizing for Monday's giant refinery fire in Richmond, but questions still remain. Tuesday offered a first look at the aftermath of the blaze which sent huge plumes of black smoke over the East Bay.

Refinery fire caused by vapor leak

Chevron officials say the fire started with a fuel leak at 4:15 p.m. Monday and by 6:30 p.m. it had grown large enough that workers were evacuated. The fuel ignited a short time later sending thick black smoke into the atmosphere. Residents reported hearing two booms, but Chevron insists there was no explosion. Officials ordered thousands of area residents to shelter-in-place.

It's still not clear what was in that black cloud, but a few hundred people arrived at East Bay emergency rooms suffering from respiratory issues. Three BART stations and the toll plaza for the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge were shut down. The shelter-in-place was finally lifted around 11:30 p.m. The fire was contained late Monday night and on Tuesday, Chevron allowed a small controlled burn to continue to relieve pressure.

Chevron says it has everything mostly under control now. The leaking hydrocarbon fuel, similar to diesel, has been stopped. The unit where the leak occurred, unit four, has been shut down. Chevron says the other units in the refinery are still running, but some that were fed by unit four have been impacted.

The huge ball of fire that roared from the number four crude unit is gone. The smoky black cloud produced by the hydrocarbon leak could be seen for miles. Now, there's just a basketball-sized flame that continues to burn until the line is empty. "It'll stay small. It won't impact the community. You won't be able to see it. You won't be able to smell it," Chevron Fire Chief Mark Ayers said. Refinery workers are allowing a small control burn, a "flare," to control the situation. "What we're doing is taking the pressure that is still there, that little bit of residual pressure, and we're letting it burn so that it can safely consume that product as opposed to creating a larger incident again," Ayers explained.

Chevron says they first noticed the leak at 4:30 in the afternoon. It was a small leak, about 20 drips a minute, leaking in the number four unit line. They say workers immediately began to look at their options. "We're evaluating that actual leak. We're looking to see what's causing it, where it is, how we could isolate it," Ayers said. But the leak began to grow. The workers were told to back away. "As they backed away, it started to put up cooling water and that's when it opened up and initially, found an ignition source and lit up," Ayers said. "Once we saw that this leak grew and had ignited, we notified the city, we notified the county, and we activated the community warning system."

Chevron says Cal-OSHA and the EPA are among the outside agencies conducting their own investigations into the fire.

Chevron holds meeting for Richmond residents

An angry crowd of 700 people packed the Richmond Civic Center Auditorium after Monday night's smoky inferno. Officials from Chevron and Contra Costa County called Tuesday night's meeting to address community concerns, but it quickly turned into an evening of boos and heckling. For two hours officials from Chevron and local government had to sit there and take it while angry, screaming residents vented their frustrations at the oil company and how Monday's emergency was handled or mishandled.

The Chevron refinery general manager, Nigel Hearne, offered an apology for the disruption and concern caused in the community. Residents peppered Chevron and local officials with questions. One woman asked, "Does my grandchild have to look forward to having cancer? Am I going to have to put my horse to sleep because it's developed cancer? And I've noticed a lot of horses out there are getting cancer. Where is it coming from? Is it coming from you guys?"

Some residents complained they didn't hear warning sirens or get automated calls alerting them of the trouble. Officials say they would look into it. It became tense when a local community garden group approached the stage with crops they claim were ruined by pollution from the smoke.

Many residents were unimpressed with the presentation. Some say it was just a bunch of jargon that didn't really answer people's questions. However, Chevron had some supporters too.

"Tell them about the good stuff, how your kids go to school and get the opportunities that they give. They give us money, but let me tell you this, without Chevron being in Richmond, we will be just like Vallejo -- broke!" said Richmond resident Antwon Cloird.

The Bay Area Air Quality District says monitors showed no unhealthy levels of pollution, but that they would be checking filters to see what particles have been trapped. The results of those tests won't be done for several days.

Hundreds seek medical attention

A report from air quality managers shows the air around the plant never reached unsafe levels, even as 949 people showed up for treatment at local hospitals. Many of them were at the Nicholas Haney law office in Richmond Tuesday filing claims. They say an apology or two is not enough. Gerald Hemingway has chronic asthma and was taken by ambulance to the hospital. "I still don't have my balance correct. I also still have burning in my throat," he told ABC7 News. In fact, more than 400 people packed various emergency rooms in the East Bay Monday. Residents who live in the neighborhoods blanketed by thick black smoke are wondering what can be done to prevent similar accidents from happening again.

"The smoke was covering up the sun and we were wondering why did it get dark so fast," Hope Babino told ABC7 News. The refinery is so close to where she lives, it's practically in her back yard. However, Monday's blaze has placed something else even closer, fear. "There's a lot of kids in the area and all the chemicals in the air, you know, it's messing up all the kids. A lot of kids here now are getting asthma from all this that didn't have asthma before. So, all the chemicals in the air is not good for them," she said.

The chemical fire created a thick black smoke that could be seen for miles to the east. It covered a Richmond neighborhood known as the "Iron Triangle" like a wool blanket. "That's messing with my baby's health, his lungs closed up," Babino said. At its peak, two large fires could be seen kicking out the heavy burn off across the sky, gray in parts, black as coal in others, and the entire time, a bright orange blaze was fueling it at its base.

As of noon Tuesday, Kaiser Hospital in Richmond had assessed and treated almost 350 people with respiratory concerns, reminding Babino that what happens at the refinery can have a real impact on her and her community. "By that being so close to this area, it's a big concern for everybody's kids," she said.

According to the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, one of the reasons children are more susceptible to the health effects of air pollution is because their immune systems and developing organs are still immature. Research suggests that the exposure to toxic air contaminants during childhood could affect the development of the respiratory, nervous, and immune systems and could increase the risk of cancer later in life. Babino says apologies from chevron are appreciated, but she has other questions. "Tell how they're going to do better for these kids, the quality of our air," she said.

It is important to note that air quality monitors around the Bay Area did not pick up anything from the fire. The air quality monitors at the refinery were set to be evaluated Tuesday.

Anyone wishing to file a claim against Chevron can call the Chevron Claims Hotline at 1-866-260-7881.

911 calls released

ABC7 news has obtained copies of some of the 911 calls made during the moments, just after the refinery fire erupted. They convey a bit of confusion by neighbors.

"Are we supposed to stay indoors or no, because the alarms are going on," said a person calling 911.

"I'm sorry. You said that the alarms are going on?" said a 911 dispatcher.

"Yeah," said a person calling 911.

"Um, in that case it would probably be best to do so then sir, but like I said we already have the fire department on the way. We don't have anything further at this point," said a 911 dispatcher.

Officials eventually issued a shelter-in-place order for Richmond, North Richmond and San Pablo. Police also advised residents in the Oakland Hills to stay inside because of the thick, dark smoke choking the skies.

Richmond mayor demands investigation

Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin is adamant about a thorough investigation into the cause of the fire at the city's biggest employer and biggest source of tax revenue. If you ask her about her feelings in the wake of the fire, she'll say she is concerned, but on Tuesday she also sounded frustrated. She's frustrated by Monday's accident, but perhaps also past accidents at the refinery, by hundreds of residents having to rush to emergency rooms, and by fighting with Chevron over the refinery's future and its value for property tax purposes.

The mayor is calling for a thorough and transparent investigation into the cause of the fire by both Chevron and government officials. As of now, she does not consider Chevron a good neighbor. "They're a high profiteering company that makes billions of dollars a year. And given that they make such a high profit, we think they should be paying more to the community of Richmond, that has suffered for over 100 years with the risk that this recent accident has put us into," she said Tuesday.

This was the third serious fire at the Chevron refinery in the past 13 years. The failure of a pipe improperly attached caused a fire in January of 2007. One refinery worker suffered minor burns. Chevron says no unsafe levels of any hazardous materials were released. Back in March of 1999, a leaking pipe created a vapor cloud that exploded and burned. 400 neighbors went to the hospital during that incident, many of them complaining of respiratory problems.

The plant is almost exactly 110 years old, according to Chevron's website. It was finished in July 1902 and makes gasoline, jet fuel, lubricants and other products. Chevron says it's trying to upgrade its refinery into the 21st century, but claims it's being blocked by the city of Richmond's bureaucratic red tape. Chevron has submitted renewal projects for the city's approval but claims Richmond is putting up unnecessary obstacles.

McLaughlin agrees that the process is tedious, but says Monday's accident would have happened anyway. "We have ongoing meetings as we're re-reviewing the revised project but this incident, from what I understand, had nothing to do with any of the proposed project, renewal project," she said.

Emergency alert system works for most people impacted by fire

The system designed to protect residents worked for most people affected by the Chevron refinery's toxic cloud of smoke. But, there were problems reaching everyone.

Parkway Estates in Richmond is one of the closest neighborhoods to the Chevron refinery. Residents there say the emergency phone response system worked as it's meant to.

Maria Guillen says she and her family knew exactly what to do.

"Stay inside and close the windows and turn off the vents and put, like, towels under the doors," she said.

The chief of the environmental health for Contra Costa Health Services says more than 18,000 people were notified within minutes of the incident.

"They can push a button and activate all these different mechanisms automatically," Randy Sawyer said. "So that goes off within seconds after they make a decision it's a Level 3 type and we want people to shelter in place, so yes, we felt it worked as designed last night."

Roger Kim is with the Asian Pacific Environmental Network. He says about half a dozen people in the Laotian community complained that their alert box, which notifies them in their language, did not work.

"We also found out that for several of them the box didn't work, so they didn't receive any emergency calls as a result of it," Kim said. "...some got sick, complained of dizziness."

Contra Costa Health Services say they are looking into why the system did not work for those residents.

No bridge toll due to shelter-in-place orders

The Bay Area Toll Authority has decided not to penalize drivers who did not pay the toll on the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge because of the fire. For nearly six hours, while the toll booth operators were sheltering in place, 4,500 cars passed through the toll gates. Drivers in the cash lanes were instructed not to stop and will not be billed and Tuesday, the toll authority said the charges would be reversed for nearly 2,000 FasTrak users who crossed the bridge between 6:40 p.m. and 12:30 a.m.

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