RICHMOND -- Hundreds of residents lined up at a community center Friday to lodge new claims against Chevron, seeking reimbursement stemming from the Aug. 6 refinery fire that poured black smoke into local skies.
Chevron officials hastily set up shop at the Nevin Community Center at 598 Nevin Ave., using folding tables and chairs and plain black-and-white banners. The decision to open a centrally-located center to field residents' complaints was prompted by residents at a town-hall meeting Tuesday, said Chevron spokeswoman Melissa Ritchie.
She added that the "claim center" approach was new for the refinery, which has had accidents scattered over its more than 100 years in the city.
"We want to make this right with the community," Ritchie said. "We take claims over the phone on our 24-hour hotline, but we know some residents are happy to have a place where they can come file their claim in person."
More than 4,000 people sought medical attention immediately after Monday's fire. Ritchie said more than 2,200 people have made calls to a 24-hour hotline with fire-related damage claims.
On Friday, the line outside the Nevin Community Center held steady at about 70 people, despite claimants being moved briskly through the process. That process was overseen by Crawford & Company, a claims management company contracting with Chevron.
Ritchie said the goal is a response to all claims within three days and resolution of all claims within 30 days.
"We intend to compensate our neighbors for medical and property expenses incurred as a result of the incident," she said.
At times, the line grew to more than 100 residents. People shuffled along as the line stretched down Nevin Avenue, with Chevron's massive oil drums dotting the hillsides to the east.
While many in line expressed frustration over the whole incident, the mood Friday was calmer than the scene just a few days before. With the fire still smoldering, hundreds of residents lashed out against Chevron officials at Tuesday's town hall meeting, heckling refinery manager Nigel Hearne and calling for the refinery's closure.
The fire at the refinery, which can process up to 240,000 barrels of crude a day, flared at 6:15 p.m. Monday, sending flames and plumes of black smoke miles into the sky and across the bay. Chevron is still investigating the incident, but has confirmed that it originated in the "No. 4 Crude Unit," which processes diesel crude oil.
Many residents on Friday said they learned about the claims center from family and friends.
Touleah Cooper, a 31-year-old resident of the nearby Barrett Apartments, a low-income housing complex, said the fire and its fallout forced her to take her 6-month-old son to the Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Richmond twice with respiratory irritations.
"He was wheezing and crying; he couldn't breathe," Cooper said, holding a crumpled wad of hospital papers in one hand, and cradling her baby with the other. "I shut my windows and doors, but my eyes were watering, too."
While most residents said news had spread quickly via word of mouth in the central Richmond neighborhood, others from outlying communities said they had heard about the new center online or through the media.
Bobby and Evelyn Hopson, a retired couple from the eastern edge of Richmond miles from the refinery said they never planned on putting in a claim until they were urged to by their children. Bobby Hopson, 75, said his asthma was "unbearable" in the days after the fire.
"We never had a warning, so I didn't notice there was a problem until I started coughing," Hopson said.
Two representatives from the State Bar of California passed out fliers to residents explaining basic legal rights and providing a hotline for Bar-certified attorney referrals.
Ritchie said Chevron had not been sued as of Thursday night. Ritchie added that residents who make claims and accept compensation would not forfeit any rights to pursue future lawsuits against Chevron.
Ritchie said the company will continue to staff its 24-hour hotline at 866-260-7881. The new center will remain open from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday and 8 a.m. to noon Saturday for an indefinite period.
Contact Robert Rogers at 510-262-2726. Follow him at Twitter.com/roberthrogers