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CSB says US regulation needs strengthening in Chevron refinery blast interim report

16 April 2013

On April 15 the US Chemical Safety Board (CSB) said that Chevron should check for ongoing damage to pipes and equipment at its US refineries to prevent another explosion like the August 6 pipeline blast at the company's San Francisco Bay area refinery. The pipeline walls had thinned significantly in the years prior to the August 6 explosion, the board said.

A cloud of smoke over Chevron's Richmond refinery in August 2012
A cloud of smoke over Chevron's Richmond refinery in August 2012

In an interim report, the CSB said Chevron did not act upon six recommendations over 10 years to increase inspection and replace the line at its Richmond, California, refinery with upgraded pipe.

During the 10 years before the August 6 blast, refinery officials saw signs the pipeline's walls were thinning due to corrosion from rising sulphur content in the increasingly diverse crude oil grades the refinery was processing, the CSB found.

Chevron said it was working with the CSB to make changes to its process hazard analysis program, while strengthening the refinery's reliability program for piping and equipment.

"The refinery has also begun to implement an enhanced process for regular damage mechanism reviews for each unit and piping circuit to improve the evaluation of known damage mechanisms, the potential consequences of a failure, and the safeguards necessary to mitigate failures and other potential risks," Chevron said in a statement.

The accident occurred on the evening of August 6 as firefighters were seeking the source of a leak on the pipe, which carried gasoil away from the refinery's 245,000-barrel-per-day (bpd) crude distillation unit (CDU).

The pipeline rupture released a huge vapour cloud seen from miles away before igniting two minutes later. The blaze created an even larger plume of black smoke over the area. More than 15,000 San Francisco Bay area residents sought medical treatment in the weeks after the blaze for respiratory problems.

A CSB official told a news conference that its full report, due later this year, would examine the response to the initial leak and why there were so many people nearby.

The CSB, an investigative body that has no enforcement or regulatory powers, also recommended Chevron report leading and lagging safety indicators at its two California refineries to federal, state and local regulatory agencies.

The board called upon the state of California to establish a multi-agency process safety program "to improve the public accountability, transparency, and performance of chemical accident prevention and mechanical integrity programs."

CSB Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso said the problems seen in the Richmond refinery explosion are a reflection of the US refining industry.

"It's a very old industry, and what we find out is that the equipment is, in some cases, pretty old," Moure-Eraso said at an April 15 news conference. "We think that what happened here in Chevron is a reflection of the sector in general."

The CSB also recommended that the City of Richmond and Contra Costa County strengthen process safety programs over refineries under their jurisdiction. There are four refineries in Contra Costa County.

The board recommended that federal, state and local worker safety and environmental protection agencies conduct joint inspections of refineries and chemical plants. It also recommended those agencies participate in the new safety regulation program recommended for California.

Since the August 6 fire, the Richmond refinery's sole crude distillation unit, which does the initial refining of crude oil coming into the refinery and provides feedstock for all other units, has been shut.

Chevron said repairs to the CDU were completed in late March and the refinery plans to restart the unit in April. The refinery has been producing motor fuels at 50 percent of capacity due to the CDU's shutdown.

"Make no mistake: the ultimate issue here is not corrosion but how to make effective corporate decisions, and regulators need effective tools and resources to encourage companies to make the right choices," Moure-Eraso said. He added the state's moves could help strengthen safety at the nation's 144 refineries.

The board is also recommending that the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health, or Cal/OSHA, hire more technical staff who can help the agency do a better job at refineries.

Cal/OSHA issued 25 citations carrying nearly $1 million in fines related to the incident and other issues at the Richmond refinery.

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