Cal/OSHA Issues $963,200 in Penalties for Refinery Fire

The state agency also has filed 25 citations against Chevron USA, including 11 willful serious and 12 serious violations, in connection with the August 2012 fire.

Cal/OSHA, the California Division of Occupational Safety & Health, has proposed $963,200 in penalties and filed 25 citations against Chevron USA in connection with the Aug. 6, 2012, fire at Chevron’s Richmond, Calif. refinery. The citations include 11 willful serious and 12 serious violations, resulting in what the agency's Jan. 30 announcement said are the highest penalties in Cal/OSHA’s history.

"Ensuring worker safety is the employer's responsibility," said Christine Baker, director of the California Department of Industrial Relations, parent agency of Cal/OSHA. "Refineries must take the steps needed to prevent incidents like the August Chevron fire. Failure to do so can pose great dangers to workers, surrounding communities, and the environment." Cal/OSHA Chief Ellen Widess said the penalties are the highest allowed under state law. "Our investigators found willful violations in Chevron's response before, during, and after the fire," she said.

The agency's release said the fire occurred when a "severely corroded pipe in Chevron's #4 Crude Unit began leaking. Chevron managers did not shut down the unit but instructed workers to remove insulation, which led to the pipe's rupture and a massive fire. While there were no serious worker injuries, a reported 15,000 residents of surrounding communities sought treatment after breathing emissions from the fire." In addition, Cal/OSHA has ongoing investigations of Chevron’s El Segundo refinery in the Los Angeles area and its oilfield in Lost Hills near Bakersfield.

The citation documents are available here.

U.S. Chemical Safety Board Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso spoke at a Sept. 11, 2012, Richmond City Council meeting about the fire. He called it "a close call for the workers and the refinery's neighboring residents. The cloud of flammable vapor released from an aging and thinning pipe could have had far worse consequences," he added. Citing this incident and three other recent refinery accidents, Moure-Eraso said they "show a widespread need for refineries to strengthen their process safety and preventative maintenance programs so that problems are detected before dangerous releases of flammable or toxic products."

The Cal/OSHA release says violations were found in Chevron's overall implementation of its own process safety management procedures, which Cal/OSHA requires of all refineries, and that Cal/OSHA's investigation found Chevron did not follow the recommendations of its own inspectors and metallurgical scientists, dating back to 2002, to replace the corroded pipe, and the company did not follow its own emergency shutdown procedures when the leak was identified and did not protect personnel who were working at the leak site.

The willful serious violations include:

  • Chevron did not follow its own policies or act on repeated recommendations to replace the corroded pipe that ultimately ruptured
  • Chevron did not test pipe thickness in areas identified as susceptible to corrosion and leaks because of the high temperature and high sulfur content of the crude oil
  • Chevron did not recognize the potential for a catastrophic release of ignitable diesel fuel from the leaking pipe and ordered contractor employees to erect a scaffold at the leak site
  • Chevron allowed workers to enter the hazardous incident zone without proper PPE
  • Chevron had pervasive violations in its leak repair procedures throughout the refinery.

Cal/OSHA said its investigators found leaks in pipes that Chevron had clamped as a temporary fix, and left some of the clamps in place for years rather than replacing the pipes themselves.

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