Chevron Refinery Fire Highlights Need for Better Risk Management, Safer Chemical Alternatives

In August, a major fire at a Chevron oil refinery in California sent thousands of people to hospitals and forced local residents to hide in their homes with their doors and windows shut. The fire, which sent clouds of black smoke over the San Francisco Bay area, highlights the risks that refineries and chemical plants can pose to local communities and the need for ready access to information that residents can use to protect themselves and their families from chemical disasters.

The Chevron Fire

The Chevron Richmond (CA) Refinery is one of the country's largest and oldest refineries, processing up to 240,000 barrels of crude oil a day. On Aug. 6, workers discovered a gas-oil (a combustible liquid hydrocarbon) leak when they were trying to fix an old, 1970s-era pipe. When the workers saw the liquid spreading, they evacuated the area. The temperature of the gas-oil, in excess of 600 degrees Fahrenheit, caused the substance to form a large, flammable vapor cloud.

Investigators from the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB), the independent federal agency in charge of investigating chemical accidents, called the Chevron fire a "near disaster" that could have killed more than a dozen workers. "Witness testimony collected by CSB investigators indicates that a large number of workers were engulfed in the vapor cloud," said CSB team lead Dan Tillema in a press release. "These workers might have been killed or severely injured, had they not escaped the cloud as the release rate escalated and the cloud ignited, shortly thereafter."

The CSB confirmed the fire’s impact on the community. "Area hospitals told CSB investigators that they attribute hundreds of emergency room visits by community members to reported effects of the release and fire, with symptoms ranging from anxiety to respiratory distress," said CSB board member Mark Griffon.

CSB investigators questioned why the leaking pipe had not been replaced in November 2011 after an inspection forced an adjacent and corroded pipe to be upgraded. The Board will also examine whether the unit should have been shut down before crews started working on the leaky pipe.

In addition, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is investigating the fire to determine whether Chevron violated the Clean Air Act, which could result in fines and changes in how the company operates the refinery. "There's a history of violations at the facility that have led to enforcement actions," said Jared Blumenfeld, administrator for the EPA's regional headquarters in San Francisco.

In 2003, Chevron was required to pay $275 million to settle violations of the Clean Air Act and upgrade its Richmond refinery; in 2000, the EPA fined the company $20,000 for failure to immediately notify officials of a 500-pound sulfur dioxide leak; and in 1998, Chevron paid $540,000 to settle a water pollution case in which the refinery discharged unfiltered wastewater into San Francisco Bay. California’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Bay Area Air Quality Management District are also investigating the fire.

The Failure to Notify and Protect

The fire highlighted inadequacies in the Chevron risk management plan, which is supposed to notify the public about chemical disasters. Local residents said emergency sirens were not activated, and the county’s emergency telephone notification system notified only some residents about the need to "shelter in place" (stay in their homes or workplaces). Moreover, it took almost six hours for all the notification calls to go out.

The county’s telephone notification system, currently administered by a vendor (CityWatch Notification Systems), sends alerts to landline phones to inform local residents of emergencies. The vendor is supposed to notify 20,000 people within 30 minutes after an emergency notification is triggered, but county officials cited problems with the vendor’s software, outdated technology, and lack of multiple lines as reasons for the delay. Since the fire, Contra Costa County officials are exploring different vendors in order to improve the county's emergency notification system.

Local residents are also angry that no information on the air quality in Richmond, CA, was available after the fire. In an agreement with the city in 2010, Chevron received utility-tax concessions that were supposed to have been in exchange for "installing air monitoring equipment that would detect gases crossing the refinery fence line" and for "establishing community-based air-monitoring stations." The company apparently never installed the equipment.

"We live with this risk day in and day out. I will be seeking a full investigation and analysis from both Chevron and independent sources. I am calling on Chevron for full and complete transparency and accountability in determining what caused the health and safety of our residents to be jeopardized," said Mayor Gayle McLaughlin. "Our community is rightfully concerned and we shall continue to seek full cooperation from Chevron regarding all aspects of their day-to-day operations of this inherently dangerous and complex process of oil refining."

Historically, refineries and chemical facilities have often been sited in minority and low-income communities. For example, the North Richmond community closest to the Chevron refinery is one of the poorest in California. The rate of asthma among adults and children is three times the county average. One in three children in Richmond has been hospitalized for asthma.

Communities at Risk

About 140 oil refineries and over 400 chemical plants in the United States pose a significant danger to the communities in which they operate, and the Richmond refinery fire was just the latest example of the risks they pose. Back in March 2011, two workers were killed, two more injured, and about 130 people lost their jobs when a chemical plant exploded in Rubbertown, KY. (Over two thirds of the people living within one mile of the chemical plant were people of color, and 22 percent were poor.)

The EPA states that "no other industry suffers as many catastrophic incidents involving hazardous chemicals as refineries." There were at least 28 refinery fires in the United States in 2012 alone. In addition, several thousand plants use, store, and ship poisonous gases, such as chlorine and anhydrous ammonia, which creates more risks of accidents and exposure. In fact, if one of the Chevron refinery’s tanks of anhydrous ammonia, a toxic and odorless gas, were to have exploded during the fire, 160,000 residents living up to five miles from the refinery would have been in grave danger.

Despite the risks posed by chemical plants and refineries, local residents often do not know what chemicals are being produced and stored onsite, nor are they aware of the potential dangers and response plans when emergencies occur. Greater transparency and engagement with communities could improve the public’s ability to identify and remedy weaknesses in risk management plans and chemical hazards at specific facilities.

Improving the Public’s Right to Know

Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA requires facilities to submit a risk management plan, or RMP, describing the facilities' activities to prevent the accidental release of harmful chemicals and, should accidents nonetheless occur, how the plan would reduce the severity of chemical releases and the harm experienced by the surrounding community.

The risk management plan is supposed to help "local fire, police, and emergency response personnel (who must prepare for and respond to chemical accidents), and is useful to citizens in understanding the chemical hazards in communities," according to the EPA. Although the law requires this critical information be available to the public, EPA places severe restrictions on the public's access to this information (many of which were born out of a reaction to the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001). The government does not allow online access to risk management plans, and citizens have to visit one of the 66 federal reading rooms across the country to obtain information about response plans in their communities.

Current EPA guidance, issued in 2004, does contain a set of best practices for facilities to follow when providing information to the public about risks and emergency management plans. The guidance also recommends extensive engagement with community residents when facilities are developing their risk management plans and when companies are revising those plans. However, it appears that most facilities do not actively follow this guidance.

In May 2011, public interest organizations released a report with extensive recommendations for improving public access and participation on environmental issues, which included ideas for improving residents' right to know about facility operations, chemicals, and risk management plans. Specifically, the report, An Agenda to Strengthen Our Right to Know, recommended that EPA develop new procedures to improve online public access to risk management plans. In addition, organizations suggested that industry and public officials should expand opportunities for public engagement on developing risk management plans and disclosing chemical risks.

For example, local communities should be included in the development of an emergency and risk management plan, and the completion of the plan should not represent the end of community engagement. As community demographics and technologies change, emergency plans should evolve, too. In the report, organizations noted that emergency plans need to reflect the needs of vulnerable communities, such as those with disabilities, the elderly, non-English speakers, and low-income and minority residents. The report also recommended that the EPA require chemical facilities to use safer chemicals.

Beyond Knowledge: Using Safer Alternatives to Protect Americans

There are many safer chemicals and processes that industry can use to replace dangerous substances and better protect Americans in the process. In fact, some communities no longer face risks of dangerous chemical exposures because nearby plants have switched to safer alternatives. For example, three months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the Blue Plains Wastewater Treatment Facility in Washington, DC, voluntarily switched from using a deadly chlorine gas in the treatment of wastewater to a potentially safer alternative. In 2009, the Clorox Company announced it would replace bulk quantities of chlorine gas with safer chemicals. More than 220 chemical facilities have switched to safer and more secure chemicals and processes since 2001.

However, chemical industry lobbyists continue to oppose federal legislation to mandate safer chemical alternatives. In the face of this opposition, recent bills designed to require plants to take steps to minimize the use of unsafe chemicals have stalled in Congress.

An alternative path to safer chemical plants is available. The EPA could follow the advice of the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council and use its authority under Section 112(r) of the Clean Air Act to prevent chemical disasters by requiring plants to shift to less toxic chemical alternatives. Perhaps the recent Richmond explosion will spur the EPA to use the authority it already has to reduce the risk of future catastrophes – before more lives are put at risk.

Image in teaser by flickr user D.H. Parks, used under a Creative Commons license.

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