Officials Seek Changes in Aftermath of Chevron Refinery Fire

 
Loni Hancock

Mayor Gayle McLaughlin.

Nancy Skinner

Jim Rogers

Nat Bates

By Danielle Savage Newly released results of two investigations into the causes of the fire at the Chevron Richmond Refinery have set off fresh discussions in Richmond and around the East Bay about what must be done to prevent future disasters. The fire, which took place in August, resulted in six minor injuries and more than 15,000 residents seeking medical treatment. One report was released by investigators from the federal Chemical Safety Board, and Chevron submitted its own 80-page findings to the Contra Costa Health Services Hazardous Materials Division acknowledging its failures and promising safer methods to prevent another accident. For some leaders, the reports highlight the need for  greater vigilance and more outside oversight of refinery operations. “Our community is not going to forget about this. We cannot afford to forget,” said Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin. “During the fire, thousands of people were told that they had to stay in doors and keep their windows and doors shut,” said Senator Loni Hancock (D-Berkeley). It’s about the safety of human beings. It’s very disappointing when a large corporation that makes billions of dollars in profit a year chooses not to provide safe conditions, and we can’t let it go on.” “Tragically, Chevron ignored a fact that has been known within the refinery industry for 40 years: sulfur causes corrosion, and is especially corrosive in the type of pipes used at the Richmond Refinery,” said Assemblymember Nancy Skinner. Others find that Chevron is responding to community concerns and emphasize that the company is a responsible community partner that is moving forward to make necessary changes. “They acknowledged their mistakes [and] they are willing to correct the problem. We just have to be positive about it, learn from the mistakes of the past and move forward,” said Richmond City Councilmember Nat Bates. “They’re working with the community, [and] they continue to contribute to a number of non-profits and organizations that are dependent upon there financial assistance,” Bates said. “ We have to move beyond the fire and start working collaboratively with Chevron to make this community a better community, and I think Chevron is willing,” he said. “They are a major taxpayer and a major employer. They contribute almost 40 percent of our general fund revenue. That’s potential revenue that this city needs.” Richmond City Councilmember Jim Rogers sees Chevron’s report as a good first step. “It’s clear that some changes have to happen [and I’m] glad Chevron is making some of those changes,” he said. Chevron report’s was produced by the company’s experts as well as independent experts and members of the United Steelworkers Union. “We’ve inspected every piping component in the unit where the fire occurred. We are replacing every piping component as necessary, based on the results of these inspections. We are implementing a new protocol for evaluating leaks and shutting down equipment,” the report said. The U.S. Chemical Safety Board’s report on the fire that took place at the 2,900-acre refinery says changes are necessary at the state, county and city level. The report criticized Chevron but also the state for lacking in methods to hold the company accountable. Although Cal/OSHA hit Chevron with more than $900,000 in fines after the fire, according to the safety board, “Between 2006 and Aug. 6, 2012, Cal/OSHA conducted three planned inspections of the Chevron Richmond facility. None of these inspections resulted in citations or fines.” “Cal/OSHA is very understaffed, [it] does a wonderful job. It just doesn’t have enough people. I’m taking steps to try to correct that,” said Senator Hancock, who also faulted Chevron for not maintaining  the refinery. “The concern is not just that there was a fire, but that there were clearly a lot of breakdowns and a lot of sloppy procedures,” said Councilmember Rogers. “The most important thing is to be taking care of business on a safety level and that was not happening.” Hancock is currently working on two bills to help maintain the safety of the community. One would increase penalties for large violations like the fire. The other bill, which she is working on with Assemblywoman Skinner, would give oversight agencies like Cal/OSHA the power to force Chevron to fix unsafe conditions regardless of whether the company appeals or not. “They need to correct all the safety violations at the plant. We don’t need more public relations or outreach. We need those pipes fixed. It turns out there are hundreds of pipes that are unsafe,” said Hancock. “In the 10 years prior to the fire, Chevron Richmond personnel recommended on multiple occasions that the failed pipe be upgraded,” said Skinner. Longtime Richmond resident Tiara Mosley says she would like to believe Chevron wants to make the plant safe but is not convinced the company is sincere. “Chevron as a major corporation is not going to change.They’re just issuing statements because they have to. The company wants to protect itself rather than the community around them,” Mosley said. “My biggest concern would be the side effects of the chemicals that are being put out [in the community],” she said.
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