More than two hours passed at Chevron’s Richmond, CA, refinery between the discovery of a leak and the ignition of a blaze that threatened the health of thousands of nearby residents and sent hundreds to hospital emergency rooms Monday night. At any point during those hours, shutting down the big crude-oil processing unit in which a pipe was leaking could have prevented or greatly limited the disaster.
The San Francisco Chronicle reported details of that excruciating delay Wednesday morning, along with very different accounts of why it happened. The plant’s emergency response managers vaguely said they saw the leak as too minor–just “20 drops a minute” at first, to trigger an emergency or notify anyone. Until, of course, it suddenly got bigger and exploded into a blaze. But workers on the ground saw it differently and told their story to their union’s safety experts:
“From the time they did see the leak, they debated what to do,” said Kim Nibarger, who has investigated refinery accidents nationwide. “It was not so much whether to fix the leak, it was about what could they do to keep the line running and get it fixed.”
Nibarger based his opinion on Monday’s incident after discussions with union representatives at the refinery. The choice, he said, should have been clear.
“When you have hydrocarbons outside the pipe, you are no longer running at a normal condition. It’s time to shut the thing off and fix it, not to try to figure out a way around it.”
The last big fire at the Chevron Richmond refinery, in 2007, started the same way: a leak in the same refining unit, No. 4. Two employees were injured and the refinery was shut for months.
What one local resident said in 2007 sounds like it was today: