RICHMOND -- The probe into what caused a massive fire at the Chevron refinery Aug. 6 is stalled while engineers work to make the site safe for investigators, but legal action stemming from the blaze that sent thousands of residents to hospitals is gathering steam.
Three Bay Area law firms sued in Contra Costa County Superior Court on Wednesday, accusing the energy giant of "gross negligence" in its handling of refinery maintenance and emergency response to the fire.
In a news conference held just a block from the claim center that Chevron opened last week for affected residents, Oakland civil rights attorney John Burris told a gaggle of media and residents that refinery leaders allowed a leaky pipe to "fester," putting Richmond residents in unnecessary peril.
"This community has borne the brunt of (Chevron's) negligence," Burris said.
Burris, joined by San Francisco attorneys Matthew Kumin and Partick Goggin, sued Wednesday on behalf of nine local residents, including three children, according to court records. Burris said there would be more plaintiffs and that a class-action suit was likely. More than 1,000 people have contacted his office since the fire, Burris said.
Goggin said the lawsuit seeks extensive safety upgrades, including improved community alert systems, along with unspecified punitive and compensatory damages to the plaintiffs. As part of the 21-page complaint, the attorneys alleged that Chevron has a history of toxic accidents that have harmed residents' health, including 13 fires and uncontrolled emissions from 1989 to 1999.
Chevron spokeswoman Melissa Ritchie said Wednesday that the company is not aware of any other lawsuits.
"When we receive lawsuits, we will review each case based on the merits of their claim and handle as appropriate through the legal process," Ritchie wrote in an email Wednesday.
Soon after the fire, Chevron opened 24-hour claims hot lines, and it has taken more than 7,500 claims by phone and 1,300 more in person at the claims center it opened last week at the Nevin Community Center.
Chevron has vowed to clear all claims -- many related to expenses incurred by the more than 9,000 hospital visits in the aftermath of the fire -- within 30 days. Representatives of the State Bar of California handed out legal fliers to visitors at the claim center last week, and other area attorneys have distributed fliers and other advertisements offering legal services to Richmond residents.
During his news conference, Burris said he advises all residents to refrain from filing claims with Chevron or accepting any compensation from the company to ensure they do not constrain their legal rights.
Ritchie on Wednesday reiterated her earlier assurances that no one who files a claim with Chevron or is reimbursed by the company is asked to sign any documents.
"Residents do not give up their right to file a lawsuit if they receive a claim settlement from Chevron," Ritchie wrote.
It had been thought that all hospital visits were for minor discomforts, usually respiratory issues. But Randy Sawyer, director of Contra Costa County's hazardous materials program, said this week that two or three people, including a small child, suffered severe respiratory symptoms that required hospitalization.
"My understanding is that a child with pre-existing asthma conditions was hospitalized with respiratory problems," Sawyer said.
A spokeswoman from Doctors Medical Center in San Pablo, which handled more than 3,000 people in the five days following the fire, said one person was hospitalized there.
Meanwhile, the site of the fire remains unsafe, preventing investigators from accessing what they said may be the most crucial piece of evidence, a leaky 8-inch pipe that apparently precipitated the fire.
At a Tuesday news conference outside the refinery, U.S. Chemical Safety Board officials said several times that the pipe, its condition and past maintenance -- including a decision not to replace it -- was a "key line of investigation."
A Chemical Safety Board official on Wednesday said a report in the San Francisco Chronicle that the agency believed an idling fire engine "likely" ignited the fire was inaccurate.
"The CSB did say yesterday that (the truck) is a possible ignition source but that there were multiple potential ignition sources, and the actual source may not be determinable and is not a major focus of investigation," CSB spokeswoman Shauna Lawhorne wrote in an email Wednesday.
Chemical Safety Board officials said they viewed Chevron surveillance video that showed a dense vapor cloud, fueled by the leaky pipe, grow to roughly 200 feet wide and 200 feet tall at the refinery's Crude Unit No. 4, briefly enveloping about a dozen workers. Don Holmstrom, a CSB investigator, said initial work has involved viewing the video, interviewing about 50 Chevron workers and requesting thousands of pages of maintenance documents and other records from Chevron.
The source of the leak was an 8-inch pipe carrying 600-plus degree hydrocarbons from the crude unit.
Repair crews initially responded but within minutes evacuated the area.
"If (the vapor cloud) would have ignited sooner, this would have been a much more serious incident," he said.
Residents have been quick to praise the public health response after the fire.
"I went to Kaiser hospital (on Aug. 7) because I was feeling the respiratory impacts," said the Rev. Andre Shumake, a longtime resident. "It was orderly and professional despite a flood of people. It was phenomenal in the midst of the crisis."
Residents and hospital officials have also praised Doctors Medical Center for handling a tremendous volume of people.
Only one of the plaintiffs was on hand at Burris' news conference. Charles Simmons, a 67-year-old resident of North Richmond, which sits nearly adjacent to the refinery, said he was suing because he has been wracked with physical and emotional distress since the fire. Simmons said he suffered a sore throat, sinus irritation, upset stomach and other symptoms since the fire.
Burris, who has a reputation for suing law enforcement agencies for alleged misconduct, said Wednesday that his legal action was more about improving safety and alert systems at the refinery than securing monetary damages.
"We want to force the kind of remedial actions that will minimize the likelihood of this happening in the future," he said.
Watch a video of attorney John Burris announcing Wednesday's lawsuit against Chevron at ContraCostaTimes.com