The Chevron refinery fire in Richmond in August 2012 sent smoke across much of the East Bay. (Stephen Schiller/Flickr)
The Chevron refinery fire in Richmond in August 2012 sent smoke across much of the East Bay. (Stephen Schiller/Flickr)

Federal chemical regulators investigating the 2012 Chevron Richmond fire are putting off action on refinery safety after an apparent split on how strict new regulations should be.

In a packed meeting Wednesday night in Richmond, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board voted to defer for 120 days action on a staff report on the August 2012 Chevron fire. The report calls on California regulators to adopt a stricter, more proactive approach to regulating oil refineries similar to the system used in many European countries.

That approach is known as a “safety case” regime, in which technically competent regulatory personnel would evaluate refinery safety plans, then audit and inspect facilities to make sure operators were implementing the plans.

The report also recommends requiring refineries to bring regulators in to oversee work that’s deemed hazardous and to take steps to ensure that refinery workers can report unsafe practices without fear of retaliation.

In addition, CSB investigators said, a “safety case” model requires oil refineries to use inherently safer materials and equipment — one of Chevron’s major failures leading up to the 2012 blaze.

About 100 community residents attended the meeting in the Richmond City Council chambers, along with members of environmental groups and oil industry representatives. A handful of people carried signs calling on the board to adopt the staff report with its strict safety recommendations, and some community members told the board that it’s time for action to make Chevron’s Richmond operation safer and cleaner.

Sylvia Gray White told the board she was among the 15,000 East Bay residents who sought hospital treatment after the refinery fire sent a thick plume of black smoke across much of western and northern Contra Costa County. “Breathing air full of toxic chemicals has drastically reduced our quality of life,” White told the board.

The five-hour meeting heard a summary of the staff report. It echoes the board’s preliminary findings, which blamed the fire on Chevron’s repeated failure to follow advice from its own safety experts and install a safer type of steel in key parts of the refinery. High sulphur content in crude oil processed at the refinery caused older pipes to thin, then rupture, sparking the fire.

As the Contra Costa Times’ Robert Rogers reports, sign before the meeting suggested the board would adopt the report:

Prior to Wednesday’s meeting, Board Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso was firm in his belief that the safety case regime was the right approach. He was the lone vote in favor of adopting the staff report.

“We have a refinery safety problem in the U.S.,” Moure-Eraso said. “The current regulatory system is clearly not working.”

Moure-Eraso’s sentiments were echoed by Dan Tillema, a lead investigator for CSB.

“I don’t see any downside to the safety case regime,” Tillema said. “But there will be industry resistance.”

And, Rogers adds, the industry did express opposition to the new safety regime in written comments:

“Adopting the safety case regime would add complexity and uncertainty” without guaranteed benefits, said Ron Chittim, a senior policy adviser for the American Petroleum Institute.

In a written statement released earlier Wednesday, Western States Petroleum Association President Catherine Reheis-Boyd urged California and Contra Costa officials to take “a thoughtful and cautious approach.”

Reheis-Boyd wrote that moving too quickly to adopt some of the programs recommended by the CSB could inject a high level of complexity and confusion into long-standing and successful safety programs.

“We must be very careful in how we introduce change, especially into programs that have a long record of acceptance and success,” she wrote.

When it came time to vote on adopting the staff report and the “safety case” recommendations, the board members split.

Chemical Safety Board member Mark Griffon moved to put off voting on the report, saying that the agency needs more time to iron out transitional issues and address unanswered questions raised by the public, including whether the California Division of Occupational Health and Safety, Cal-OSHA, is authorized to require refineries to correct safety hazards in a timely manner.

Griffon suggested postponing a decision for 120 days to allow a panel to amend the report by addressing how to address potential obstacles.

Board member Beth Rosenberg also voted to delay a decision Wednesday night, saying, “I am 90 percent sure that I want regime change in the United States. I want to do it from a position of strength.”

Moure-Eraso voted to adopt the report and new safety regime; Griffon and Rosenberg voted for the 120-day delay.

This post contains material from Grace Rubenstein of KQED News and Bay City News.


Dan Brekke

Dan Brekke is a blogger, reporter and editor for KQED News, responsible for online breaking news coverage of topics ranging from California water issues to the Bay Area's transportation challenges. In a newsroom career that began in Chicago in 1972, Dan has worked as a city and foreign/national editor for The San Francisco Examiner, editor at Wired News, deputy editor at Wired magazine, managing editor at TechTV as well as for several Web startups.

Since joining KQED in 2007, Dan has reported, edited and produced both radio and online features and breaking news pieces. He has shared in two Society of Professional Journalists Norcal Excellence in Journalism awards — for his 2012 reporting on a KQED Science series on water and power in California, and in 2014, for KQED's comprehensive reporting on the south Napa earthquake.

In addition to his 44 years of on-the-job education, Dan is a lifelong student of history and is still pursuing an undergraduate degree.

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