Chevron avoids refinery safety accountability with jigsaw puzzle of agencies

On Monday evening a small leak at the Chevron refinery in Richmond CA quickly escalated into a fire and explosion. The fire sent a cloud of black smoke and noxious fumes into the air, with residents being forced to “shelter in place”. Following the incident a flood of residents descended upon hospitals and other treatment centers with respiratory complaints. Today the group named ConsumerWatchdog.org issued a statement that Chevron is relying on a “Jigsaw Puzzle of Safety Regulation” to avoid effective oversight and accountability.

GREENBRAE, CA – JULY 27: Customers fuel their cars at a Chevron gas station on July 27, 2012 in Greenbrae, California. Chevron reported a 6.8 percent decline in second quarter earnings with profits of $7.21 billion compared to $7.73 billion one year ago. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

The group says the blaze “released toxic chemicals including sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide in unknown amounts” and news reports from local sources quote resident after resident complaining of foul smells. An example is “You could clearly tell it there was something toxic in the air. My eyes were really, really red and running,” a statement from Carol Bluitt, who lives blocks from the refinery and quoted in an Associated Press article. The same report said Doctors Medical Center in San Pablo had treated over 300 people, and Kaiser’s Richmond Medical Center had treated over 350 people.

Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin, calling the fire unacceptable, said “We live with the day-to-day risk of this type of manufacturing and refining that has an impact on our community with pollutants being released, but with the accident that happened yesterday, that doesn’t mean it’s acceptable, because it’s not.” On the other hand Erika Monterroza, a spokeswoman for California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health, or Cal/OSHA, said “Investigators have notified us that Chevron’s emergency response was excellent. Everyone was evacuated and Chevron set up an exclusion zone to keep people out of the area.”

ConsumerWatchdog.org says the State Department of Toxic Substances Control has little or no oversight authority over dangerous substances involved in refineries. “The Department of Toxic Substances Control regulates hazardous waste in the state of California,” said consumer advocate Liza Tucker. “And there isn’t a single refinery that doesn’t produce or store hazardous waste.” Instead the DTSC is limited to overseeing hazardous waste dumps, and the agencies only role at refineries is to oversee hazardous waste storage.

ConsumerWatchdog.org is calling on the State Attorney General to “investigate the failure of the state to adequately supervise hazardous refineries and their toxic emissions” following a series of recent refinery fires, including Chevron and Evergreen Oil.

The group says that refinery oversight is distributed among a hodgepodge of city and county fire and health agencies, the state Air Quality Management Districts, California Occupational Safety and Health Agency, various water agencies, Cal-EPA and more. The implication is that divided oversight cannot be effective. At the same time the DTSC “has declined to seek authority over toxins produced by refineries, even though their large-scale toxic releases can put far more residents in immediate danger than a toxic waste collector or recycler” according to the group.

This weeks fire was not the first such incident at Chevron’s Richmond refinery. A fire in 2007 was also triggered by a leaky pipe. And ConsumerWatchdog.org claims this weeks incident was nearly identical to one in 1999 that sickened over 1200 people.

Fourteen years ago Contra Costa County enacted the Contra Costa County Industrial Safety Ordinance mandating seven large refiners and chemical companies, including Chevron, to develop stringent safety programs meant to prevent chemical releases and accidents as a supplement to existing federal and state programs. While it has resulted in fewer accidents, it is expensive for Contra Costa County.

“Chevron glibly blames environmentalists and local residents for blocking plant expansions, but refuses blame for failing to make its refinery, in the middle of the densely populated Bay Area, as safe as it could be,” said Tucker, an advocate at Consumer Watchdog. “State regulators make such evasion easy by passing the buck to other state and local agencies. And now what we’re seeing is regulation by crisis. Huge corporations just aren’t going to bother to be in safety compliance when they don’t fear real accountability.”

Chevron issued a statement that said in part “We apologize for the fire and smoke caused by yesterday’s incident. Nothing is more important than safe operations, and yesterday we did not meet that expectation… We are currently working on cleanup and investigation. We will continue to work with government agencies to determine the cause of the incident and strive to see that it never happens again. We will work hard to repair the refinery so that we can provide consumers with the fuel products they need… A claims process has been set up through Crawford and Company, and we intend to compensate our neighbors for medical and property expenses incurred as a result of the incident. We also will see to it that communities be reimbursed for the costs they face for emergency personnel who responded to last night’s incident. If you wish to file a claim, please call 866-260-7881. We will respond to these claims as promptly as possible.”

On July 27, Chevron released an earnings report stating that in the 2nd quarter of 2012 the company had earnings (a.k.a. profit) of $7.2 Billion.

SF Chronicle coverage of 1999 Chevron explosion

Contra Costa County Industrial Safety Ordinance

Chevron Reports Second Quarter Net Income of $7.2 Billion Compared to $7.7 Billion in Second Quarter 2011

About David Herron

David Herron is a writer and software engineer living in Silicon Valley. He primarily writes about electric vehicles, clean energy systems, climate change, peak oil and related issues. When not writing he indulges in software projects and is sometimes employed as a software engineer. David has written for sites like PlugInCars and TorqueNews, and worked for companies like Sun Microsystems and Yahoo.
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About David Herron

David Herron is a writer and software engineer living in Silicon Valley. He primarily writes about electric vehicles, clean energy systems, climate change, peak oil and related issues. When not writing he indulges in software projects and is sometimes employed as a software engineer. David has written for sites like PlugInCars and TorqueNews, and worked for companies like Sun Microsystems and Yahoo.

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