Chevron hit with nearly $1 million fine for Richmond refinery fire
By George Avalos
Contra Costa Times
Posted: 01/30/2013 11:37:42 AM PST
Updated: 01/30/2013 06:16:42 PM PST
RICHMOND -- A state agency on Wednesday slapped Chevron with a nearly $1 million fine -- the highest amount allowed by state law -- in connection with a disastrous fire in early August at the company's Richmond refinery.
The state Division of Occupational Safety and Health issued 25 citations accompanied by a $963,200 fine against Chevron, said Peter Melton, a spokesman for the agency, also known as Cal-OSHA.
"Our investigators found willful violations in Chevron's response before, during and after the fire," Cal/OSHA Chief Ellen Widess said.
The penalties are the highest allowed under state law, Widess said, and the biggest ever levied by the state agency.
"There were serious violations of safety
Smoke and flame billow from a crude oil unit at the Chevron refinery in Richmond, Calif., Monday, Aug. 6, 2012. (D. Ross Cameron/Staff) ( D. ROSS CAMERON )
standards," Melton said.
Chevron said it would appeal the citations.
"Although we acknowledge that we failed to live up to our own expectations in this incident, we do not agree with several of the Cal/OSHA findings and its characterization of some of the alleged violations as 'willful,'" said Sean Comey, a Chevron spokesman. "Chevron intends to appeal."
The fire crippled the refinery's crude oil distillation unit, a system essential to the refinery's ability to process crude oil and transform the petroleum into vehicle fuels. Since the Aug. 6 blaze, the refinery has been operating at about 60 percent capacity and has primarily focused on blending fuels that have already been processed.
San Ramon-based Chevron has paid about $10 million to cover medical expenses and other claims in the wake of the fire.
Community activists applauded the penalties.
"It's about time," said Denny Larson, executive director with Richmond-based Global Community Monitor. "Cal/OSHA is routinely criticized for not imposing the highest possible fines in other refining disasters."
Other Chevron critics said the oil company needs to be dealt with harshly because of the severity of the incident.
"This is long overdue," said Antonia Juhasz, an oil analyst who has published a series of critical reports about Chevron. "This company needs to be taught the lesson that it needs to do better."
Chevron said it continues to cooperate with local, state, and federal agencies investigating the fire.
Cal/OSHA claimed that Chevron did not follow the recommendations of its own inspectors and metallurgy scientists to replace the corroded pipe that ultimately ruptured and caused the fire. Those recommendations dated back to 2002.
The state agency also claimed that Chevron did not follow its own emergency shutdown procedures when the leak was identified, and did not protect its employees and employees of Brand Scaffolding who were working at the leak site.
The citations include 12 "serious" violations and 11 "willful serious" ones. Those classified as "serious" indicate they posed a risk of worker injuries and deaths. Those classified as "willful" indicate that Cal/OSHA found Chevron did not take reasonable actions to eliminate refinery conditions that it knew posed hazards to employees, and intentionally and knowingly failed to comply with state safety standards.
"Chevron has been putting its own workers and the rest of the East Bay at risk," said Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley. "That is not appropriate. Our refineries need to be operated safely and Chevron must step up to the plate."
This week, the oil company also said it is updating its equipment and safety procedures to prevent a similar incident.
"Chevron takes our commitment to safe operations seriously," Comey said.
Contact George Avalos at 408-373-3556 or 925-977-8477. Follow him at twitter.com/george_avalos.