After the Chevron refinery explosion last summer endangered workers and sent thousands of nearby residents to hospitals with respiratory complaints, the Richmond community rightfully demanded that the company ensure such an accident never happen again.
That's why we commend city officials for insisting that the company prove not only that its plans to replace failed pipes meet industry standards, but that it will use the best materials available.
The city must not cave to Chevron pressure and threats to jobs. Yes, everyone should cooperate to ensure repairs can proceed in a timely fashion. But the issuance of construction permits cannot be rushed at the expense of safety.
In the aftermath of the August fire, Chevron unilaterally declared that it was replacing the carbon steel pipes that failed with vessels made of a steel alloy that contains 9 percent chromium. But the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, which has been probing the Chevron explosion, called that choice into question.
There is growing consensus the pipe failure in August was consistent with corrosion from sulfur. The safety board warned that while an alloy with 9 percent chromium would be more resistant to corrosion than the original carbon steel, stainless steel with 18 percent chromium would be better.
The board highlighted a February fire at a Washington state refinery that involved "sulfidation" corrosion of pipes made of the 9 percent
For its part, Chevron says that while stainless steel is more resistant to sulfidation corrosion, it's more susceptible to stress corrosion cracking than the 9 percent chromium alloy. Thus, Chevron claims, it made the best metal selection when all safety factors were considered. (Indeed, the company claims, it picked the more expensive pipe.)
Chevron might be right; it might not. Its problem right now is that, when it comes to safety, no one should take its word. The company's recent track record does not leave one willing to trust it to make such a critical decision.
So the city, which must approve the permits for the repair project, has called in its own experts. Unfortunately, those experts have only been willing to say that Chevron's choice meets industry standards. That's not good enough. The pipes that failed also met industry standard.
To go further, the experts want to first see the answers to questions the safety board has been asking of Chevron about why it chose the 9 percent chromium alloy. The company says it provided those answers last Tuesday.
Perhaps that will help break the logjam. We'll see.
But, while we recognize Chevron would like return the refinery to full production, public safety must come first. If that means taking more time to get it right, so be it.