EMERYVILLE -- Saying change here could pioneer safety improvements at oil refineries across the country, federal officials investigating last year's massive fire at Chevron's Richmond refinery on Monday called on California to adopt sweeping regulatory reforms of the accident-prone industry.
The U.S. Chemical Safety Board made its recommendations in a draft report on the Aug. 6, 2012, fire that sent 15,000 residents to hospitals for medical attention and shut down one of the West Coast's major crude units for months when an aging pipe failed. It called on California officials to hire more highly trained inspectors and adopt rules forcing refineries to prove to state regulators they can operate at the "lowest risk practicable."
That would include requirements that refineries use the safest available equipment technology and submit for regulator approval "safety case reports" that demonstrate how "inherently safer design concepts have been applied."
Officials from the safety board, an independent federal agency charged with investigating industrial chemical accidents, briefed the news media on the findings and recommendations Monday afternoon.
"We have a refinery safety problem in the United States," said safety board Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso.
The draft report recommends that California replace the current patchwork of largely reactive regulations with a more rigorous, performance-based regulatory regime -- similar to those adopted overseas in regions such as the United Kingdom, Norway and Australia -- known as the "safety case" system.
Moure-Eraso said the agency documented 125 "significant process safety incidents" at refineries in the United States in 2012, with 17 of those occurring in California, a rate far higher than in Europe.
"California could serve as a model for the safety case system being adopted nationwide," Moure-Eraso said, adding that he had "great confidence" that lawmakers would implement the agency's recommendations.
The board noted that the California Division of Occupational Safety & Health had a team of just seven regulators monitoring the state's 15 refineries and about 1,700 other chemical plants.
The board concluded that the fire in Richmond might have been averted if the state had been able to more effectively monitor the Richmond refinery, and that Chevron repeatedly ignored warnings from its own staff that corroded pipes posed a risk.
State Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, on Monday called the new report an "exciting moment."
"The CSB recommendations are profoundly positive, and we will be looking at them in both the budget process and in legislation next year," Hancock said. "Last year, we discovered that Great Britain has half as many refineries as California, and hundreds of inspectors, while we have seven inspectors who have responsibilities beyond just the refineries."
Hancock said she led a subcommittee effort in June to increase the number of state inspectors from seven to 26, later adopted by the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown, but she did not know how many of those new positions have been filled.
"Clearly, more inspectors is just a first step, and we'll look carefully at all the recommendations of the CSB," Hancock said.
The draft report is the second of three derived from the CSB's investigation of the fire. The fire engulfed 19 workers in flammable vapor, but no one was seriously injured.
The report notes that the safety case represents a fundamental change by shifting the responsibility for continuous reductions in major accident risks from regulators to the company.
Safety case reports generated by the company would be rigorously reviewed, audited and enforced by highly trained regulatory inspectors, whose technical training and experience are on par with the personnel employed by the companies they oversee, the draft report says.
Don Holmstrom, director of the agency's Western Regional Office of Investigations, said the recommendations also include more input from workers, unions and the communities surrounding refineries, input that he said was ignored or unheard by Chevron officials before the 2012 fire.
Chevron spokeswoman Melissa Ritchie released a statement Monday afternoon saying the company continues to enhance safety at its refinery.
"To date, we have inspected thousands of individual piping components, and are replacing them as necessary based on the results of these inspections," Ritchie said. "We are also implementing a multimillion-dollar expansion of our air monitoring system to include several sites in the surrounding communities."
The safety board is expected to consider the draft report for formal adoption at a public meeting at 6:30 p.m. Jan. 15 at Richmond City Hall. The public can comment on the report, available at www.csb.gov, until Jan. 3 by sending comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Richmond Councilman Jim Rogers attended the CSB's briefing and asked whether local measures could complement the agency's recommendations. Holmstrom encouraged the city to move forward.