Two new federal reports on the 2012 Chevron refinery explosion and fire reveal a broken regulatory system and a company insufficiently sensitive to the safety of its workers and the community.
The conclusion is clear: Industry cannot be trusted to monitor itself, and government inspectors must be given more resources and legal authority to protect people and the environment.
Vapor released from a ruptured pipe fueled the inferno at the Richmond facility that nearly killed 19 workers, spewed tons of pollutant-laced black smoke into the air for hours, sent 15,000 seeking medical attention and hospitalized about 20.
It could have been much worse. And we're lucky there haven't been more. In 2012 alone, according to the U.S. Chemical Safety Board's latest report, there were 125 significant petroleum refinery incidents nationwide, including 14 in the East Bay's refinery belt.
There were fires at Tesoro refinery in Martinez, ConocoPhillips in Rodeo, Shell in Martinez and, of course, Chevron in Richmond; hydrogen sulfide releases at ConocoPhillips, Chevron and Shell; and sulfuric acid and vapor releases at Tesoro.
Aside from Chevron, none resulted in widespread damage. But one need only look at recent incidents across the nation to see the potential danger.
In 2005, an overfill of a distillation column at the BP Texas City Refinery resulted in an explosion and fire that led to 15 fatalities, 180 injuries, a shelter-in-place order for 43,000 people and damage to homes three-quarters of a mile away.
In 2009, an explosion at Silver Eagle Refinery damaged more than 100 Woods Cross, Utah, homes. In 2010, catastrophic failure of a heat exchanger killed seven workers at the Tesoro refinery in Anacortes, Wash.
The question is not whether there will be another deadly accident; the question is when. It's inevitable because refineries are inherently dangerous. But our economy would grind to a halt without fuels they produce. So we must take every step possible to minimize risk and damage.
With five refineries in the East Bay and Solano County, the stakes here remain exceptionally high. That's why Chevron's behavior has been so disconcerting. That's why the breakdown of our regulatory system is so alarming.
Chevron's internal analysis essentially blamed the pipe failure on poor documentation and miscommunication. But we learned from the Chemical Safety Board's April report that the company had failed to make essential repairs despite more than a decade of alerts from its own staff and longtime industry recognition of potential danger.
In 2002, significant corrosion was found in the pipe that eventually failed. In 2005 and 2011, upgrading of the pipe to a more corrosion-resistant metal was recommended. In 2003, 2006 and 2009, thorough testing was recommended. In 2006, 2007 and 2011, other parts of the line were upgraded. But the pipe that failed was not tested nor replaced.
Last week, we learned from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency of the oil company's failure to properly develop safe operating procedures and a risk management plan, and to promptly report releases to state and local emergency officials.
The details are contained in a 62-count finding of violations, including some that occurred this year.
Meanwhile, the Chemical Safety Board issued another report on the Richmond explosion, this time focused on the flawed regulatory scheme. It found that, despite huge danger, state and federal laws don't require that refineries reduce risk to as low as reasonably practicable.
In California, regulators lack the technical expertise to provide sufficient direct oversight of refineries. The safety board recommends that the state establish more-rigorous rules with flexibility to adapt to changing technology, and hire enough highly trained regulators.
Similarly, the Chemical Safety Board found, Contra Costa's much-heralded Industrial Safety Ordinance lacks teeth, requiring only that refineries consider using safer systems. We're pleased that county and Richmond officials are now working on a tougher version.
But that alone will not be enough. To protect us all, this byzantine local, state and federal regulatory framework must be overhauled.