By Ted Goldberg

A section of Chevron's Richmond oil refinery, site of a two-alarm fire Wednesday morning. Deborah Svoboda/KQED)
A section of Chevron’s Richmond oil refinery, site of a two-alarm fire Wednesday morning. Deborah Svoboda/KQED)

Several investigations are under way into a small fire at the Chevron refinery in Richmond this morning, nearly two years after a much larger blaze led to scrutiny of the facility from state and federal officials.

But Chevron’s account of how the blaze started differs from that given by local fire officials.

A three-quarter inch processing line ruptured and leaked heavy crude oil that ignited the two-alarm fire at around 2 a.m., according to Richmond Fire Chief Michael Banks. Crews from the Richmond and Contra Costa County fire departments, along with Chevron’s own firefighting team, put out the blaze less than an hour later, Banks said.

After the fire was extinguished, oil continued to leak from the pipe, so the line was shut down. It’s unclear how that is affecting the refinery’s production.

However, Chevron spokeswoman Melissa Ritchie disputed that account.

“What we know right now is that while preparing a nonoperational area for maintenance work using a specialized hose and steam, a leak and small fire occurred,” Ritchie said in an email late Wednesday morning. “While our investigation into the incident is continuing, there is no indication that the leak occurred from a pipe or a processing line.”

Whatever the cause, Wednesday morning’s blaze was much smaller than the fire that swept through a crude-oil processing unit on Aug, 6, 2012. That incident led to investigations by Cal-OSHA and the U.S. Chemical Safety Board and prompted 15,000 people to seek medical treatment for breathing problems.

Chief Banks said the fire was relatively small and was contained quickly. “It was not nearly the magnitude of the fire in 2012,” he said.

Banks, Chevron and a top Contra Costa County health official emphasized that the incident did not present a health risk to nearby residents. The fire did not cause any injuries and was confined to one processing unit.

“This was a very minor incident, no impact to the community, no injuries,” said Chevron spokeswoman Richie. She added that a Level One notification was made to Contra Costa County Health Services.

“Based on the information we received the fire was not to the level that we would issue a shelter-in-place notifications,” said Randy Sawyer, that agency’s hazardous materials program director.

The Richmond Fire Department and Chevron itself are planning to investigate the fire. The blaze occurred as Richmond city officials near a final decision on whether to allow Chevron to go ahead with a $1 billion upgrade to the refinery.

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