What Really Happened at Chevron’s Refinery Fire?

Documents from the state Division of Occupational Safety and Health, obtained by the San Francisco Chronicle, reveal the root cause of Chevron’s (NYSE:CVX) Richmond, California, refinery fire in August.

The documents contain allegations from two refinery workers claiming that unchecked corrosion was not only responsible for this year’s fire, but also a smaller blaze in October 2011. Following the original fire, workers told regulators that the company was ignoring the problem.

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During the state’s inspection of the October fire, according to the Chronicle’s coverage, one worker told Cal/OSHA safety Carla Fritz, “We’re afraid something is going to fall through the cracks.” Her visit was prompted by an anonymous complaint of unsafe working conditions.

Fritz’s notes regarding the fire, which took place in furnace piping at the refinery’s lube oil processing plant, showed workers had concerns over the increasing corrosion. Company managers, whose names were redacted from the documents by state officials, told Fritz that the corrosion, though unexpected, was not out of the ordinary.

Cal/OSHA never issued a violation notice to Chevron in regards to the 2011 fire “because the problem alleged and potential hazard had been already identified and corrected,” the division said in a statement.

When the Chronicle asked whether the refinery should have undergone a more thorough inspection after the fire, Chevron released a statement saying it had taken “the appropriate actions to protect the safety of its employees and facilities.”

However, Chevron has admitted that a 5-foot section of line was not checked for corrosion when the plant was closed for scheduled maintenance in October and November 2011. The U.S Chemical Safety Board discovered after the most recent fire, that corrosion had eroded 80 percent of the carbon-steel pipe.

Since 2002, Chevron’s Richmond refinery has been fined nine times by the state’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health, according to the San Jose Mercury News, and the resulting fees amounted to $11,545. The refinery has also received 15 violations, logged 11 complaints, and reported six accidents in the past decade. But these statistics do not make it the most dangerous Bay Area refinery, according to Chevron spokesman Peter Melton. Melton told the Mercury News that of the five Bay Area refineries, Chevron’s Richmond facility ranks second to Valero’s (NYSE:VLO) refinery for the best safety record. Royal Dutch Shell (NYSE:RDS.A) (NYSE:RDS.B), Tesoro (NYSE:TSO), and ConocoPhillips (NYSE:COP) also have refineries in the area.

While Cal/OSHA termed it a “serious incident that was handled by well-trained employees,” Kim Nibarger, a refinery safety expert for the United Steelworkers union told the Mercury News that the fire underscores a larger issue of aging refinery facilities. “What the industry needs is a federal agency solely focused on refinery safety and operations,” she said.

Federal investigators are still determining whether there was a connection between the two fires.

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