Last summer a Chevron refinery fire rattled the community of Richmond. Now, there is good and bad news for Chevron -- operations can resume, but it needs some big changes.
The federal agency that investigates serious industrial accidents says that the whole regulatory system needs to be overhauled.
The Federal Chemical Safety Board told East Bay legislators that the Chevron fire demonstrates how the current patchwork of local and state regulators simply does not work and that California has an opportunity to lead the way in changing how oil refineries are regulated.
Chevron's Richmond Refinery fire in August 2012 was the result of a ruptured pipe. Investigations since then have shown the company knew the pipe was in danger of failing as long ago as 2002, yet did nothing about it.
On Friday the Chemical Safety Board, or CSB, told East Bay legislators that the nominal fines and citations that come after the fact are more like emergency management than prevention. The CSB said the state and the nation's while system of regulating refineries has to be overhauled.
"The whole system needs improvement. There's no one component that you can identify that doesn't need improvement to be part of a package and I think the biggest point I want to make is the lifeblood of safety is continuous improvement," said Donald Holstrum from the CSB.
The CSB says in the U.S., the regulatory emphasis is too much after the fact. The board says the system in other countries demands companies prove safe practices as a pre-condition to being allowed to operate and that is making their refineries less accident-prone than ours.
"For example the CSB has received reports from the large reinsurance company called Swiss Re that the losses per 1,000 barrels in the U.S. sector are three times that of Europe," said Holstrum.
Three CalOSHA inspectors spent this week at the refinery and on Friday gave Chevron the all-clear to restart the repaired crude unit, damaged in the fire. Chevron says it has not re-started it yet and is not giving a date for when it will.
Contra Costa County Supervisor John Gioia says the county health department will be doing a top-to-bottom audit of the refinery.
"We want to make sure that they operate safely and their history recently has caused us come concern, so that's why we need to make sure that from the bottom up, their practices are safe and that's what this audit will allow us to see and allow us to enforce," said Gioia.
Even though the refinery has cleared the OSHA inspectors, it will still be under the scrutiny of the county for some time.