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Inspectors get first look at Chevron refinery after fire

(KGO)
August 14, 2012 12:00:00 AM PDT
New video made public Tuesday shows federal safety inspectors getting their first look inside the Chevron refinery in Richmond and maybe some clues as to what triggered the fire there last week. The massive fire sent a thick cloud of smoke into the air and hundreds of people to the hospital with breathing issues.

Chemical Safety Board inspectors are trying to figure out why Chevron did what it did before and after the fire. On Tuesday, they released photos of the bent metal and large hole in the 8-inch pipe that failed. That pipe carried gas oil heated to about 600 degrees Fahrenheit. The board is investigating whether workers removed insulation surrounding it.

Once the first leak started last week, it grew worse and worse, eventually releasing a 200-foot high vapor cloud that was seen on surveillance video. At that point, workers scattered and about two-minutes later, the vapor cloud ignited into a fireball. Investigators don't know what the ignition source was and they may never know. Ideas range from hot pipes in the area to possibly a nearby diesel engine.

On Monday, some investigators from the Chemical Safety Board got within 10 feet of the pipe. Getting to it remains a dangerous task because of structural damage to an overhead beam as well as leaking hydrocarbons. The board confirmed that a nearby 12-inch line was replaced last November during routine maintenance, but not the 8-inch pipe that failed.

"This line was not replaced and we are very much interested in understanding the decision about why to keep this line in service. I'm sure everybody wishes that decision might have turned out differently but the fundamental mission for the Chemical Safety Board is to understand why that happened so that we can make safety recommendations to Chevron and the other energy companies," said CSB Managing Director Daniel Horowitz.

"And if that vapor cloud would've ignited sooner, it obviously would have been a much more serious incident, at the very least, potentially serious burns, possibly fatalities," CBS Western Regional Manager Don Holstrom said. There are still leaking hydro carbons in the immediate area and workers are spraying water on the site. It could be weeks before inspectors actually get inside to cut away the damaged pipe so they can have it analyzed by metallurgists. It will be up to Chevron to determine how long the facility will remain out of operation.

The board says it has interviewed about 50 witnesses and has requested a number of documents. It says Chevron and all of the agencies involved have been cooperative with the investigation and adds that they have not had to use their subpoena power up to this point. Eventually, the board will release its findings not only for Chevron, but perhaps also for new regulations for the oil industry as a whole.

Thousands of people reported breathing problems to the health department after the fire. Contra Costa County health officials presented an oral report to the board of supervisors Tuesday not only revealing the number of people who sought medical treatment, but they also discussed new ways in which they could notify the public in the event of emergency.

"Over 9,000 people have reported to the emergency rooms," Contra Costa County Director of Public Health Dr. Wendel Brunner said. "949 people reported within the first 24 hours." Brunner says the thousands that have sought medical treatment have complained of symptoms ranging from coughs, to watery eyes, and other asthma-related issues, all of it is being blamed on the smoke from the refinery fire.

"What lead to this release and how could that be prevented and what might need to be done to decrease the chances of that happening again?" Brunner asked. "Do we have a system in place where people can register their cell phones?" one board member asked. The board is also asking for a review of the county's early warning system, suggesting that the use of new technology like social media and texting could be more effective for notification.

Everyone is looking for answers, any piece of information that may calm a nervous and concerned community. Officials with the chemical safety board say getting there is a slow and methodic process. "It's important that the rest of the industry learn from this event," Horowitz said.

Contra Costa County officials say most of the people that sought medical attention were seen, treated, and released. Specific numbers on hospitalizations were unavailable; however they will be making another presentation to the board next Tuesday.


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