RICHMOND -- The suspected cause of the massive fire at the Chevron refinery in August has been linked to a fire there last year, according to state safety inspection documents in which two refinery workers complained the company was ignoring the issue.
"We're afraid something is going to fall through the cracks," one worker told Cal/OSHA safety inspector Carla Fritz during her inspection visit to the refinery after the October 2011 fire.
Fritz's notes from the visit were obtained and first reported by the San Francisco Chronicle on Sunday. The documents reveal the suspected cause of the small October 2011 fire was due to corrosion that went unchecked, the newspaper reported. The fire took place during a scheduled maintenance shutdown and was quickly extinguished.
The most senior of a 20-member operation crew in the refinery's lube oil plant told Fritz that "we're concerned about increased corrosion."
"We've increased temperatures and increased rates, and it takes a toll on the equipment," said the worker, whose name was redacted in the documents.
Cal/OSHA said in a statement that a violation notice was not issued to Chevron over the 2011 fire "because the problem alleged and potential hazard had been already identified and corrected."
In September, Chevron announced that the section of the pipe that triggered the August blaze had a low silicon content, making it more susceptible to corrosion. Chevron acknowledged that it had not inspected the five-foot section of the pipe that failed during a scheduled inspection of the 200-foot pipe. Thousands of residents near the plant went to the hospital following the fire, complaining of problems related to inhaling the smoke.
"Everybody has acknowledged that this type of corrosion on this type of steel is an issue," said Richmond Councilman Tom Butt on Sunday. "Nobody is disputing that. I think the harder part is going to be the human aspect to that. Who knew what when."
In a statement issued Sunday, Chevron defended its commitment to safety.
"We actively encourage our workers to identify potential safety issues. Everyone at Chevron has 'stop-work authority' -- they can stop any operation, without repercussions, if they believe people or the environment are in danger," according to the statement.
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Contact David DeBolt at 925-943-8048.