Refinery fire threatens workers’ lives and residents’ health

Scores of workers narrowly escaped death and more than a thousand nearby residents sought medical treatment after an August 6 fire at the Chevron oil refinery in Richmond, California. The fire sent clouds of acrid smoke wafting through communities forcing local officials to order residents to remain in their homes.

Chevron at first minimized the danger caused by the fire, but federal investigators said that events leading up to the fire put workers’ lives at risk.

“Witness testimony collected by (the US Chemical Safety Board) indicates that a large number of workers were engulfed in a vapor cloud,” said Dan Tillema, lead investigator for the Chemical Safety Board (CSB). “These workers might have been killed or severely injured had they not escaped the cloud as the release rate escalated and the cloud ignited.”

The fire was caused by a leak in an old eight-inch pipe. The leak was found as workers were inspecting the pipe. Company management decided to keep the pipe operating while workers looked for the source of the leak. As the workers, peeled away the pipe’s insulation, the leak accelerated, and a deadly hydrocarbon vapor began to escape.

“Monday’s fire was a near disaster,” said Dr. Rafael Moure-Eraso, CSB chair. “Although fortunately no workers were killed, the overall impact of the incident ranks it as among the most serious US refinery incidents in years.”

Chevron reported that three workers were sent to the hospital as a result of the accident. They were treated and released.

The danger wasn’t limited to the refinery. Smoke from the fire that ignited shortly after the vapor was released sickened people living nearby. About 1,700 sought treatment at local hospitals. People complained of chest tightness, breathing problems, and other respiratory ailments. All were treated and released.

The fire broke out about two hours after the workers discovered the leak in a 40-year old pipe, whose larger connecting pipe was replaced last year after an inspection found excessive corrosion.

Kim Nibarger, a safety expert with the United Steelworkers, whose Local 5 represents 600 operators and mechanics at the Richmond refinery, wondered why the pipe wasn’t shut down as soon as the leak was discovered.

“From the time (company management) did see the leak, they debated what to do,” Nibarger said to SFGate.com. “When you have hydrocarbons outside the pipe, you are no longer running at a normal condition. It’s time to shut the thing off and fix it, not try to figure out a way around it.”

USW, which represents about 30,000 refinery workers, has long been critical of safety practices at US refineries.

During the last round of contract negotiations, the union asked oil companies to include language in the contract that would make safety at refineries more robust.

But the companies resisted. After the union and companies reached a tentative agreement, USW President Leo Gerard said that he was disappointed that the companies had resisted the union’s efforts to improve refinery safety.

“Our main focus in this round of National Oil Bargaining was health and safety,” said Gerard back in February. “But the industry refused to allow  us to be equal partners with them in resolving the health and safety problems that persistently are not being addressed across the whole industry.”

In May, USW Local 5 member Mike Smith tried to get Chevron shareholders at their annual meeting to adopt a refinery safety resolution. Before Smith could speak, Chevron confiscated his prepared statement and after he made a motion to adopt the safety resolution would not allow any time for questions.

The motion failed garnering only 8 percent of the vote. After shareholders rejected the safety motion, Smith said that the fight for refinery safety would continue. “If we can guarantee our safety,” Smith said. “That would guarantee the safety of communities around our refineries.”

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