RICHMOND -- A final report on Chevron's massive Aug. 6 refinery fire could potentially lead to prosecution of the energy giant and serve as an impetus for federal regulatory reform, investigators said Monday.
"We want to take the lessons learned here to all refineries," said Dan Tillema, lead investigator for the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, a federal agency that has been at the accident site since Aug. 7. Tillema and representatives from four other investigative agencies briefed the public and elected leaders on the status of their probe.
The fire broke out in the No. 4 crude unit of the 240,000-barrel-per-day refinery after leaking 600-degree hydrocarbon liquid from an 8-inch pipe created a huge vapor cloud. Four workers suffered minor injuries, and more than 14,000 residents visited area hospitals in the subsequent weeks, complaining of respiratory problems and other discomforts.
The investigation and report may take more than a year to complete but will be a comprehensive safety and maintenance evaluation, investigators said at Monday's meeting that included representatives from four of the five principal agencies investigating the fire.
Along with Tillema, Dan Meer from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Bay Area Air Quality Management District CEO Jack Broadbent and Contra Costa County's environmental health and hazardous materials chief, Randy Sawyer, were on hand, along with more than 100 members of the media and public who crammed into the Richmond City Council chamber.
Broadbent acknowledged problems with the information his agency released the day after the fire. The air quality agency issued public statements concluding that air quality in the area was "not a significant health concern," despite having just six air quality monitors in the Bay Area that take samples only once every several days.
In its "haste" to issue emergency information, and working with air-monitoring technology "not designed to support an incident response," the air quality district issued incomplete information.
"We did indeed make a mistake," Broadbent said.
The state Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) did not send a representative to Monday's meeting but did provide a prepared statement from agency Chief Ellen Widess, which was read publicly by City Manager Bill Lindsay.
"If violations are documented, citations and mandatory orders to correct hazards will be issued and monetary penalties assessed," the statement reads.
Cal/OSHA spokesman Dean Fryer said last week that Chevron's refinery has a better-than-average worker safety record, but it has been fined several times since 2002 in incidents that involved serious injuries to workers.
The Chemical Safety Board has called the Aug. 6 fire a "near disaster" and wasted no time dispatching a seasoned team to the site. Tillema said investigators here are veterans who have investigated major petroleum facility failures, including the Deepwater Horizon, an offshore rig that exploded and sank in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.
While CSB investigators have said repeatedly that the failing 8-inch pipe and Chevron's decision last fall to keep it in service is a "key line of inquiry," Tillema said the investigation is more far-reaching.
In recent weeks, the Chevron fire has cast renewed light on the health of aging refineries nationwide, which critics say are monitored by overmatched, underfunded government agencies.
Chevron's Richmond refinery has been in operation for more than a century.
EPA representative Meer said his agency is investigating the refinery under the auspices of the Clean Air Act, which requires facilities working with dangerous chemicals develop a Risk Management Program (RMP) and submit it to the EPA. Meer said the EPA hopes to complete an audit of the refinery's RMP by October.
"If Chevron violated the law, we will prosecute," Meer said.
CSB's Tillema said safety concerns continue to keep investigators from getting to the failed pipe and conducting metallurgy and other tests. He said he hopes they can get to the pipe by Sept. 6 but may not meet that goal.