'Flare up' causes more alarm at Chevron refinery


Fire crews returned to the refinery after what is being described as a "flare-up" was reported at the same spot that burned on Monday. Chief Mark Ayers of the Chevron Fire Department said there had been a "controlled burn" in unit four since Monday's fire, but crews were called back just before noon Wednesday for a "flare-up." He said that product, most likely diesel, had been dripping from a valve that hit an overheated pump. That caused a burn and a small flare-up and then emitted some smoke.

Ayers said the plant is completely depressurized now and all fires have been extinguished, but warns that the situation is delicate. "I would like to caution everybody that as there has been fire there and there has been damage, there still is the opportunity and the risk that an additional small fire could break out in some of these lines that have been damaged," he said. When they went in to attack the secondary fire, they could see that the primary fire was out.

Teams are working to determine, definitively, what happened. A site safety plan was submitted by Cal/OSHA with an order to preserve the atmospheric structure. The plant is now completely depressurized. Residents living near the Chevron refinery are hoping the investigation provides answers and with those answers, piece of mind. "Of course, you're going to think like, what's going to happen next? When is the big explosion going to come? Or, how much of a health concern should it be? Everything just starts going in your head for a while and you start thinking," resident Tonie Lee told ABC7 News.

Ayers also explained that one of the reasons they were not able turn things off quicker is because of the process in place for doing so. Turning things off too quickly can be just as dangerous as not shutting them off at all.

Repairs could take months

Finding the vapor leak that started Monday's fire is a step-by-step process. It will take months for Crude Unit No. 4 at Chevron's Richmond refinery to reopen. Some experts predict it could be six months to a year.

Wednesday morning, a crew was continuing to pour water on the crude distillation unit, the heart of the refining process. Permanent fire monitors with high pressured hoses on the ground were also cooling things off. They were all necessary procedures before any kind of inspection begins.

Cal/OSHA has yet to come up with a plan to enter Unit 4. They say all catwalks and overhead pipes must be secured before conducting their investigation.

"It's up to them to decide when they are ready to start this investigation," Chevron Chief of Emergency Services Mark Ayers said. "A lot of it will have to do with the safety of the unit and the ability for them to make access and we'll work with them on that."

"All the pipes including the one that leaked have layers and insulation and a metal jacket around them to keep them from getting too hot, those all have to be stripped off and checked," refinery expert Mark Ross said.

Ross believes it will take months to determine where it started.

"It's like trying to determine a roof leak, it's very hard,' he said. "You see that something was leaking but where it came from they have to trace it back just like you would with a roof leak."

Once the investigation is done, Chevron will begin replacing sections of Unit 4 including some of the cooling towers with fans on top.

Chevron would not say how long it would take to get the unit running again.

"When it is safe to do so," Chevron spokesperson Heather Kulp said.

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