Chevron refinery fire in Richmond (photo: Toni Hanna)
In what amounts to as much a political statement as a quest for reparations, the city of Richmond sued Chevron Corporation over the Bay Area oil refinery fire a year ago that darkened the skies with toxic smoke and sent residents scrambling for medical assistance.
The introduction to the 39-page lawsuit leads with a condemnation of corporate practices that pose an immediate threat to the community and long-range threats to the planet. “This case represents yet another example of a corporate culture which places profits and executive pay over public safety." (The emphasis is Richmond’s.) It “is a continuation of years of neglect, lax oversight, and corporate indifference to necessary safety inspection and repairs that were known to have caused numerous other fires and explosions.”
The August 6, 2012, fire occurred after a corroded pipe gave way, releasing gas that exploded in a fireball. The city was engulfed in choking black smoke and potentially dangerous sulfuric acid and nitrogen dioxide fumes that sent 15,000 people to the hospital.
Chevron was handed 25 citations and fined $963,200 by the state after the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) said the company had heard repeated warnings, many of them internally, about “pervasive violations.” Twenty-three of the 25 violations were considered “serious” by the state agency, including Chevron’s failure to institute emergency procedures to shut down the unit, the ordering of workers into the “hazardous incident zone” without proper equipment, and failing to recognize the “potential for catastrophic release of ignitable diesel fuel.”
The lawsuit said the refinery was a “ticking time bomb” and the explosion was “completely preventable.” It detailed a long history of Chevron lapses and accused the company of knowing about the dangerous pipeline condition for 10 years. Instead of spending money on infrastructure, the company chose to spend it on executive salaries. “In 2011 alone, Chevron spent $52.8 million to compensate its top three executives,” the lawsuit reads, awarding CEO John Watson a $3.5 million bonus in April 2013 after “scathing indictments hurled by state and federal regulators.”
The company also “spent over $10 million on the 2012 federal and California political campaigns and approximately $15 million lobbying Congress and the California State Legislature during the 2011-2012 legislative session, much of it to decrease regulation. All of this money could have gone to preventing the August 2012 fire.”
More than 23,300 people have filed claims against Chevron, which has reportedly paid $10 million to settle complaints. The city’s lawsuit, filed after a year of failed negotiations with the company, seeks unspecified damages. Frank Pitre, a lawyer representing the city, told Reuters that the lawsuit was designed to “make sure that Chevron changes its corporate culture and makes sure the same thing doesn’t happen again.”
On Saturday, around 200 people were arrested during a peaceful protest march in Richmond marking the anniversary. Organizers of the march, attended by around 1,000 people, had worked with law enforcement in planning the demonstration. Arrestees were processed at a nearby fire station and immediately released.
Chevron stock closed at 124.95 Friday, just off its five-year high.