The Bay Area Chevron explosion shows gaps in refinery safety

  • Flames and plumes of smoke rise from the Chevron refinery in Richmond, California, after an explosion last month. Nearby residents were warned to stay inside, but more than 14,000 were eventually treated at nearby hospitals.

    Phil McGrew
 

When a crude-processing unit at Chevron's Richmond, Calif., refinery burst into flame in early August, sirens wailed through local neighborhoods as pillars of smoke blackened the sky over the city and surrounding hillsides.

The plant's emergency management system issued 18,000 calls to nearby residents, urging them to "shelter in place" -- closing windows, sealing cracks under doors with wet towels, turning off air conditioners -- until further notice. But hundreds of people, many from poor, predominantly black and Hispanic neighborhoods near the plant, said they received no calls. Jim McKay, a representative of the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, told a town hall meeting the next day that there had been no adverse impacts to air quality. But in the days following the fire, more than 14,000 people poured into local hospitals complaining of respiratory problems.

Chevron's 100-year-old plant has long been a source of contention in this industrial East Bay city -- and for good reason. It supports hundreds of local businesses and injects millions into the local economy, but it's also racked up dozens of air-quality violations in the last year alone, not to mention three serious fires in the last 12 years. The Richmond refinery is the state's leading source of greenhouse gas emissions and a routine violator of the Clean Air and Clean Water acts.

But the facility is hardly an anomaly. With far less publicity, two smaller Wyoming refineries went up in flames within days of the Richmond blaze. The week before, a crude unit exploded at Cheyenne's Frontier refinery. Nearby residents described feeling the heat radiating from the burning plant as they scrambled to escape the jet-black plume. No alarms sounded; no emergency phone calls were made. A few days later (just a day before the Richmond accident) a refinery operated by Sinclair, near Rawlins, burst into flame, injuring a worker. This was merely the latest of six fires at that refinery in the past three years, three of them in the last three months. There have been numerous other incidents, including the illegal discharge of oil wastes that killed more than 100 birds. (In late August, the EPA announced $3.8 million in fines against Sinclair for repeated air pollution violations at its Wyoming refineries.)

Dig into the records of any of the country's refineries and you will find a similar litany of explosions, toxic releases, violations, worker injuries -- and deaths. A recent United Steelworkers report estimated that a fire breaks out, on average, every week at a U.S. refinery. Between 2000 and 2010, at least 117 workers were killed in the nation's oil refineries and coal-processing plants, according to Bureau of Labor statistics.

Of the 45 oil refineries scattered across eight Western states, 14 are considered "large," producing more than 75,000 barrels per day. All of these large refineries are located in or near major population centers -- and many smaller facilities are smack in the middle of towns and cities. The West's most serious recent refinery disaster happened at a large refinery owned by Tesoro in Anacortes, Wash. In 2010, an explosion there killed seven workers.

In response to that and dozens of other accidents in recent years, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the U.S. Chemical Safety Board have issued harsh proclamations. "Bluntly speaking, your workers are dying on the job and it has to stop," said Jordan Barab, OSHA deputy assistant secretary, to a 2010 conference of refinery and mining representatives. Barab later noted, "(OSHA) inspectors have found many facilities where safety programs that look good on paper don't follow through in practice." Subsequent inspections at 50 refineries produced an average of 17 worker-safety violations totaling nearly $2 million per facility.

OSHA and the Chemical Safety Board have urged companies to more closely adhere to 'Process Safety Management' regulations, which outline how to deal with toxic materials and potential spills, fires and releases. Both groups have also advocated wider use of automated systems that monitor operations.

But for all its tough talk, OSHA has spotty oversight and little regulatory pull with refineries. In 2010, OSHA secretary David Michaels called his agency's enforcement power "weak." Maximum fines for first-time safety violations are $7,000 -- pocket change for large oil companies. (Fines for repeat violations max out at $70,000, but are rarely issued.) OSHA's 2,000 inspectors are charged with the impossible task of monitoring 8 million jobsites across the country, with no system in place to track violations by companies that operate refineries in multiple states.

The hazards workers face are shared by the public. A 2011 study by the Center for Public Integrity, for example, found that 20 percent of Americans live near enough to a refinery to be sickened or killed in the event of a release of hydrofluoric acid, a highly toxic substance used in oil refining. So as OSHA pushes for greater workplace safety, what protocols are being put in place to safeguard communities? In the case of Richmond, not many, says Greg Karras, senior scientist with the watchdog group Communities for a Better Environment. He points to the refinery's air-monitoring system, which was designed to measure average ambient conditions rather than sudden pollutant spikes emitted from events like fires: "You can't find what you can't measure for."

Meanwhile, every day is a possible emergency for the hundreds of thousands of Westerners living near refineries. Even under 'normal' operating conditions, the list of hazardous emissions pouring from refinery stacks -- not to mention 'fugitive' emissions from leaking pipes -- is long. In addition to the usual suspects, sulfur dioxide, hydrogen sulfide and large particulates, all of which contribute to asthma and heart disease, there are heavy metals and carcinogens such as benzene, toluene and hydrocyanic acid.

Though "shelter in place" may be an effective -- if politically fraught -- short-term response to accidental releases of dangerous chemicals, simply living near a refinery may prove unexpectedly hazardous over the long term. A 2008 study by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, for example, found elevated levels of vanadium, nickel and heavy particulates derived from oil refining in Richmond's air near the Chevron refinery. But the team found an even wider array of these chemicals inside homes beside the plant. Richmond resident Malik Seneferu, who spoke at the Chevron town hall meeting, articulated the worst fears of those living in the shadow of the oil industry: "Someone earlier said if Chevron leaves, we all die. ... But if Chevron stays, we all die, too."

High Country News Classifieds
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Communications and Outreach Associate Position Opening: www.westernlaw.org/communications-outreach-associate ************************************************* Location: Western U.S., ideally in one of WELC's existing office locations (Santa Fe or Taos, NM, Helena,...
  • FREELANCE GRAPHIC DESIGNER & PROJECT COORDINATOR (REMOTE)
    High Country News (HCN) is seeking a contract Graphic Designer & Project Coordinator to design promotional, marketing and fund-raising assets and campaigns, and project-manage them...
  • FILM AND DIGITAL MEDIA: ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF INDIGENOUS MEDIA, CULTURAL SOVEREIGNTY AND DECOLONIZATION (INITIAL REVIEW 12.1.21)
    Film and Digital Media: Assistant Professor of Indigenous Media, Cultural Sovereignty and Decolonization (Initial Review 12.1.21) Position overview Position title: Assistant Professor - tenure-track Salary...
  • REAL ESTATE SPECIALIST
    To learn more about this position and to apply please go to the following URL.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!
  • RARE CHIRICAHUA RIPARIAN LAND FOR SALE
    40 acres: 110 miles from Tucson: native trees, grasses: birder's heaven::dark sky/ borders state lease & National forest/5100 ft/13-16 per annum rain
  • CENTRAL PARK CULTURAL RESOURCE SPECIALIST
    Agency: Oregon Parks and Recreation Department Salary Range: $5,203 - $7,996 Position Title: Central Park Cultural Resource Specialist Do you have a background in Archaeology...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    Come live and work in one of the most beautiful places in the world! As our Staff Attorney you will play a key role in...
  • ARIZONA GRAZING CLEARINGHOUSE
    Dedicated to preventing the ecological degradation caused by livestock grazing on Arizona's public lands, and exposing the government subsidies that support it.
  • OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo (friendsoftheinyo.org) is seeking a new Operations Manager. The Operations Manager position is a full-time permanent position that reports directly...
  • WATER RIGHTS BUREAU CHIEF
    Water Rights Bureau Chief, State of Montana, DNRC, Water Resources Division, Helena, MT Working to support and implement the Department's mission to help ensure that...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • DEVELOPMENT & OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Southeast Alaska Conservation Council is hiring! Who We Are: The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC) is a small grassroots nonprofit based out of Juneau, Alaska,...
  • DESERT LANDS ORGANIZER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo seeks a Desert Lands Organizer to assist with existing campaigns that will defend lands in the California desert, with...
  • IDAHO CONSERVATION LEAGUE
    Want to help preserve Idaho's land, water, and air for future generations? Idaho Conservation League currently has 3 open positions. We are looking for a...
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.
  • EVENTS AND ANNUAL FUND COORDINATOR
    The Events and Annual Fund Coordinator is responsible for managing and coordinating the Henry's Fork Foundation's fundraising events for growing the membership base, renewing and...
  • EDUCATION DIRECTOR
    Position Description: The Education Director is the primary leader of Colorado Canyons Association's (CCA) education programs for students and adults on the land and rivers...
  • 10 ACRES OF NEW MEXICO HIGH DESERT
    10 Acres of undeveloped high desert land in central NM, about 45 minutes from downtown Albuquerque. Mixed cedar and piñon pine cover. Some dirt roadways...
  • WATERSHED RESTORATION DIRECTOR
    $58k-$70k + benefits to oversee watershed restoration projects that fulfill our strategic goals across urban and rural areas within the bi-national Santa Cruz and San...