Refinery Fire Prompts Proposals to Better Protect Californians
In January 2013, Chevron Corporation was fined almost $1 million for a refinery fire in Richmond, California. The fine was in response to the company’s alleged willful violations and was the largest permitted under state law. The incident has prompted officials to propose legislation and regulations that could better protect residents living near refineries, explained a California personal injury lawyer.
Fire in California Refinery
On the evening of August 6, 2012, explosions, followed by fires, occurred at an oil refinery operated by Chevron Corporation in California’s East Bay. The problems at the refinery began in the No. 4 Crude Unit, where a diesel leak developed as a result of an old corroded pipe. The diesel ignited, causing at least two fires that released thick black smoke into the sky.
All of the workers escaped without serious injury. As the black smoke filled the air, sirens went off to alert residents to stay inside to avoid breathing in the pollution. Fumes from the diesel fuel, crude oil and other hazardous pollutants were carried in the wind, leading to concerns from homeowners about emissions.
Subsequent investigations revealed that the 8-inch carbon steel pipe where the leak originated was 36 years old, had low silicone content and was susceptible to being corroded by sulfur-rich crude oil. Further, when the leak was discovered, workers tried to correct the problem while operations continued in the No. 4 Crude Unit. As they searched for the diesel leak, they may have punctured the old pipe with a sharp tool they were using to strip away insulation, thus contributing to the explosions and fire.
Investigators also indicated that Chevron Corporation had violated its own policies and procedures, responded inappropriately to the fire and put people at risk.
Chevron Corporation Penalized for Failures
In January 2013, investigators with California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health found that Chevron Corporation had committed multiple violations of safety rules and procedures. OSHA issued 25 citations against Chevron and levied $963,200 in fines. This was the largest fine permitted under California law.
Some of the violations that Chevron was found to have committed included the following:
- A failure to follow its inspector’s recommendations in 2002 to replace the corroded pipe that eventually began to leak.
- A failure to follow leak repair procedures throughout the entire Richmond refinery. For example, pipes that were in need of repair had been clamped in order to provide a temporary solution but then had never been fixed, leaving the clamps in place for years in some instances.
- A failure to follow its own emergency shut-down procedures. When the leak was initially detected, Chevron had workers attempt to repair the leak without closing down operations. This put the workers at risk and may ultimately have led directly to the explosion and resulting fires.
- A failure to file a written thorough review of a plan for a new pipe intended to replace the old failing pipe, as they were required to do.
The maximum fines for these and other violations were assessed because eleven of Chevron’s violations were classified as willful. Chevron knew of the dangers that existed and failed to take steps to improve workplace safety and avoid a potentially dangerous situation.
The labeling of the fines as willful is also a punishment in itself, as a spokesperson for Cal-OSHA indicated that there is a major stigma within the industry of willful violators.
Additional Consequences of the Refinery Fire
The large fine that OSHA imposed upon Chevron was not the only consequence of the refinery fire. Chevron also paid out $10 million to residents, hospitals and local government agencies that made damage claims based on the harm they suffered as a result of the fire and polluted air.
Lawmakers have also proposed several changes in order to impose harsher penalties in the future. For example, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District approved a seven-point plan for tracking emissions from refineries over time. The tracking will include better monitoring of air quality in neighborhoods that are located near to oil refineries. Companies operating the refineries will be required to provide mitigation to compensate for emissions increases.
Area regulators are also hoping to get the current maximum penalty amounts raised so that refineries that release pollutants accidentally will be required to pay more than they are under the current rules. The maximum civil penalty for violations of air quality regulations is set at just $25,000 but a bill put forth by Senator Loni Hancock, a democrat from Berkeley, would raise the fine for $100,000 for the first day when the air quality regulations are violated.
Finally, Nancy Skinner, a democrat from Berkeley, has also drafted legislation giving Cal/OSHA greater power to ensure that refineries correct unsafe conditions in a timely manner even when the company is appealing the violation.
These new regulations could help to protect California residents living near refineries and hopefully help to avoid another fire like the Richmond refinery fire. Preventing disaster before it occurs is always preferable to leaving area residents to cope with the aftermath of exposure to dangerous toxic pollutants.
Additional articles on public safety and the civil claims process are available to the public free of charge through our office’s Preferred Friends and Clients Program.
If you would like to request one of these free resources, or to speak with a California personal injury lawyer, feel free to call 866-981-5596.