A story about the U.S. Chemical Safety Board's report on the Chevron refinery fire said Chevron did not respond to a request for comment. Chevron emailed a statement Monday afternoon, but the email was not received until after deadline. In the statement, Chevron spokeswoman Melissa Ritchie said the company is "working closely with the (Chemical Safety Board) to make certain we understand its concerns and recommendations." The statement emphasized that Chevron is continuing to implement a range of actions in response to the fire to improve safety at the facility and address issues raised by the safety board, including strengthening its reliability program for piping and equipment.
EMERYVILLE -- In their most detailed report to date on last summer's massive fire at Chevron's Richmond refinery, federal investigators slammed the oil giant Monday for a chronic failure to replace aging equipment and called for an overhaul of regulatory oversight of the industry to prevent such accidents from happening again.
At a news conference in Emeryville, officials from the U.S. Chemical Safety Board portrayed a refinery that took a Band-Aid approach to plant maintenance -- pipes were often clamped as they aged rather than being replaced, and the section of pipe that ruptured had deteriorated to less than half the thickness of a dime.
But the Aug. 6 fire that sent 15,000 people in search of medical treatment and shut down for months one of the West Coast's major crude units also provides a golden opportunity to reform a regulatory system ill-equipped to spot imminent accidents and hold companies accountable, officials said.
"The regulatory regime in which the refinery worked allowed this to happen," Rafael Moure-Eraso, chairman of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, told a room full of news cameras and reporters at the Hilton Garden Inn.
Moure-Eraso said the refinery industry nationwide is "a very old industry ... and there is very little reinvestment by the companies. What happened here is a reflection of the sector in general. We need to be looking at inherently safer technologies. The approach must be not to manage risk but to avoid risk from the beginning."
Monday's news conference marked the release of a 70-page interim investigative report produced by the safety board, an independent federal agency charged with investigating industrial chemical accidents.
The report offered a series of policy prescriptions at the city, county and state level, aimed at making the Chevron refinery provide regular reports based in science and best practices demonstrating that the facility is improving safety and using the best available technology. It also included recommendations for a proposed multiagency regulatory program covering safety processes at all California oil refineries, geared toward improving public accountability and transparency and reducing the risk of future accidents.
Investigators also recommended that Richmond and Contra Costa County beef up their industrial safety ordinances to require more rigorous safety audits of refineries.
Reiterating statements made previously, Chemical Safety Board officials said Chevron failed to replace critical components at the refinery over a 10-year period and decried a philosophy in the industry in general of "waiting for things to break."
"The very large number of clamps being used within this facility .... is a concern," safety board Managing Director Daniel Horowitz said. "It speaks to a tolerance for allowing piping to run toward failure."
The safety board determined that Chevron has more than 100 clamps on hydrocarbon and other process piping components at the Richmond refinery. Horowitz and Don Holmstrom, the safety board's Western Regional Office director, said the tendency toward "clamping" deteriorating pipes also played a role on the day of the fire, when refinery officials initially tried to stem the leak rather than shutting down the crude unit.
Horowitz said a final report later this year will deal with "cultural factors" at the refinery that tend toward repair rather than replacement of aging components.
The response to the pipe leak that sparked the blaze was "fairly aggressive," said Holmstrom, noting that workers tried to strip insulation from the pipe rather than shut down the unit before the fire erupted.
Some of the investigators' most startling findings highlighted apparent inadequacies in regulatory oversight, including by the state Division of Occupational Safety and Health, also known as Cal/OSHA.
The report noted that between 2006 and the date of the fire, Cal/OSHA conducted three planned inspections of the refinery, totaling only 150 hours, and none resulted in citations or fines.
The inspections not only failed to discover the thinning pipe that later was the source of the Aug. 6 fire but were only a fraction of the time that safety board investigators believe would have been necessary for highly trained inspectors to conduct a thorough inspection of the 2,900-acre refinery.
In an email Monday, Cal/OSHA Chief Ellen Widess noted that the agency issued 25 citations for violations in connection with the refinery fire and assessed record-breaking penalties totaling nearly $1 million.
"Some of the (Chemical Safety) Board's recommendations go beyond current federal and state OSHA requirements," she said. "Cal/OSHA will work with the interagency task force to assess these recommendations as part of the ongoing effort to improve refinery safety for workers and our communities."
In an email statement, Chevron spokeswoman Melissa Ritchie said the company is "working closely with the (Chemical Safety Board) to make certain we understand its concerns and recommendations."
The statement emphasized that Chevron is continuing to implement a range of actions in response to the fire to improve safety at the facility and address issues raised by the safety board, including strengthening its reliability program for piping and equipment.
"These actions, and others we have taken, will help build a stronger, more transparent safety culture throughout our refinery network," statement read.
Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, released a statement Monday calling for adequate funding and staffing for Cal/OSHA.
Regulators need more resources to compel companies to act responsibly, investigators said Monday, adding that Cal/OSHA lacks technically competent staff to properly monitor oil refineries.
Holmstrom said the regulatory agency has approximately seven staff members dedicated to refinery safety, and only one is a chemical engineer.
Although there were clear calls for enhanced regulation, safety board officials laid blame for the fire squarely on Chevron.
"The bottom line of the report is Chevron had resources, time and technical expertise to know the risk," Moure-Eraso said.
Metallurgical analysis found that the 52-inch long, 8-inch diameter carbon steel pipe where the rupture occurred had undergone extreme thinning -- down to less than half the thickness of a dime -- since its installation in 1976.
Horowitz said Chevron missed opportunities to fix the pipe, and also opportunities to refine crude more safely.
Communities for a Better Environment and the Asian Pacific Environmental Network greeted the report Monday with a petition to the Richmond Planning Commission to declare parts of the Chevron Richmond refinery "dangerous building conditions." The groups say they want local land use requirements to require more public disclosure inside the notoriously secretive refinery.
The safety board will solicit public comment on the interim report before releasing a final report on its investigation later in the year. A community meeting on the findings is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Friday at the Richmond Civic Center, 440 Civic Center Plaza.