U.S. Board with no Power Tells State to Change Safety System It Blames for Refinery Fire

Tuesday, April 09, 2013
Refinery fire in Richmond on August 6, 2012 (photo: Josh Edelson, Reuters)

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB), an independent federal agency established to prevent chemical accidents, blamed the state’s “patchwork system” of oil industry regulation for contributing to the Chevron refinery fire in Richmond last August that sent more than 15,000 people to the hospital with respiratory problems.

Chevron was fined $963,200 in January by the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) for “willful violations” of worker safety regulations. But the Chemical Safety Board is only an investigative agency with no power to assess fines or compel agencies and the industry to change their practices.

The board earlier criticized Chevron for not replacing a corroded pipe that ruptured, setting off the fire, and not shutting down the refinery when firefighters were dispatched to find the leak. But last week it turned its ire on the state at a public hearing in Richmond.

“The California process safety regulatory system lacked sufficient well-trained, technically competent staff and also lacked more rigorous regulatory requirements to require Chevron to reduce safety risk,” lead board investigator Dan Tillema said at the hearing. He tracked Chevron’s Richmond problems back to 2002 

Don Holmstrom, director of CSB’s Western Regional Office, told the board that the state should scrap its safety regulatory system, which reacts to disasters after the fact, in favor of one developed in Europe, called “safety case,” that makes high-hazard facilities prove ahead of time that they can operate safely. “This type of regime requires an independent, competent, and well-funded regulator,” he said.

Those qualities are in short supply in California. Cal/OSHA Chief Ellen Widess acknowledged the systemic problems her short-staffed agency faced overseeing 15 refineries and 1,600 hazardous chemical plants. And Chevron spokesperson Melissa Ritchie said her company would gladly participate in “constructive dialogue” regarding any proposed new regulations “that will allow us to remain competitive.”

And then it was announced that Cal/OSHA had given the plant a green light to restart the crude oil processing unit that had been destroyed by the fire. The plant could be back operating at full capacity by mid-month.

–Ken Broder  


To Learn More:   

U.S. Board Faults California Safety Regulations in Chevron Blaze (by Braden Reddall, Reuters)

Chevron Refinery Fire Tied to Lax Oversight (by Jaxon Van Derbeken, San Francisco Chronicle)

Chevron Refinery Could Restart within a Few Days (by George Avalos, Contra Costa Times)

Testimony of Don Holmstrom and Dan Tillema (U.S. Chemical Safety Board) (pdf)

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