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Chevron "Burps," City Lurches
August 12, 2003

It was an interesting week that started with a threat by Chevron to shut its Richmond refinery unless workers could double their efforts and produce more profits. It ended with a “burp” that set off sirens, sent a “rotten egg” odor over Richmond, spawned 300 9-1-1 calls, stranded Amtrak passengers, closed streets and sent some residents to the hospital.

During the “burp,” we were at a party on the west side of Point Richmond, not 100 feet from the Chevron fence line when the sirens apparently went off. Despite the proximity to Chevron, no one at our location heard a siren. When we were returning home about 10:00 PM, several neighbors showing an outdoor movie (it was an unusually warm night) told us about the sirens and the “shelter in place” order that they had heard on television. As usual, details were murky, and no one was taking the alert seriously unless they could see or smell the problem. Apparently the wind was blowing the other direction.

The discussion that followed over the next two days centered mainly on how dangerous hydrogen sulfide is. Clearly, it is a toxic gas in concentrations, but when diluted, perhaps less so.

The following is according to Sujal Mandavia, MD, FRCP(C), FACEP, Clinical Assistant Professor of Emergency Medicine, USC, Department of Emergency Medicine, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Los Angeles County-University of Southern California Medical Center

Background: Hydrogen sulfide (HS) is a colorless gas that reeks of rotten eggs. HS poisoning is a rarity, mainly observed in industrial settings. Emergency physicians must be aware of the presentation and management of HS poisoning because rapid identification and treatment is essential for recovery.

Pathophysiology: Significant HS poisoning usually occurs by inhalation. Local irritant effects, along with arrest of cellular respiration, may follow. HS forms a complex bond to iron in mitochondrial cytochromes, thereby arresting aerobic metabolism in an effect similar to cyanide toxicity.

As a cellular poison, HS affects all organs, particularly the nervous system. The spectrum of illness depends on the concentration and duration of exposure, with high concentrations (>800 ppm) causing sudden death.


Low-level exposures usually produce local eye and mucous membrane irritation, while high-level exposures rapidly produce fatal systemic toxicity.

Exposures of 700-800 ppm or greater usually result in death.

History: Presence of HS usually is apparent because of the characteristic rotten egg smell. Concentrations above 150 ppm, however, may overwhelm the olfactory nerve so that the victim may have no warning of exposure. Exposures are subdivided into low-, high-, and very high-level categories.

Low-level exposure often is more chronic in nature and usually is seen in industrial settings. Chronic low-level exposure results primarily in irritation to mucous membranes and the respiratory system.

·          Headaches

·          Asthenia

·          Bronchitis

High-level exposures result in more neurologic and pulmonary symptoms.

·          Cough

·          Dyspnea

·          Vertigo

·          Confusion

·          Nausea and vomiting

·          Possible loss of consciousness

·          Hemoptysis

Very high concentrations lead to cardiorespiratory arrest because of brainstem toxicity.

·          Myocardial infarction

·          Seizure

·          Cardiopulmonary arrest 


Low-level exposure most often affects the mucous membranes and may show the following few physical signs:

·          Conjunctivitis

·          Green-gray line on gingiva

·          Wheezing

High-level exposure may elicit the following signs:

·          Tremulousness

·          Agitation

·          Cyanosis

·          Pulmonary edema (may present with acute respiratory distress syndrome [ARDS])

Causes:  HS most often is encountered as a byproduct of the petroleum, viscose rayon, rubber, and mining industries.

Organic decomposition of sulfur compounds in sewers, barns, ships' holds, and sulfur springs also produces HS.

The petroleum industry is responsible for most cases of HS toxicity in North America.

As with virtually all toxic releases in Richmond:

·          Industrial and public agency spokespersons play down both the danger and the aggravation.

·          The warning system (sirens, Community Alert Network) did not function as intended and was, depending on who you talk to, either activated too early, too late, or not at all.

·          Information about the situation is confused and inconsistent.

Many residents wonder why we have to put up with this. Others respond that these industries pay a lot of taxes, employ a lot of people, and how lucky we are to have them. That rotten egg odor, they say, “smells like money.” “It’s an acquired taste; you just have to get used to it.”

Others believe that any business should be able to keep its problems within its boundaries, and that if it becomes a nuisance or inconvenience, there should be compensation to those who are adversely affected.

With regard to the ChevronTexaco threat to pull out, virtually all the feedback I received was positive. A few people warned that the refinery’s demise would ruin our lifestyle and destroy our city. We’ll probably never know.

This may be a good time to re-introduce a proposed Richmond Municipal Code nuisance ordinance I tried once before that would levy heavy fines on businesses that cause releases sufficient to trigger sirens. The fine would be $6,000 per minute. I will request it be placed on the Richmond City Council September 2 Agenda. A copy is attached as a PDF file.

 Two news stories from the Contra Costa Times follow this message. Both show the confusion that typically surround toxic releases and their aftermath.


Posted on Mon, Aug. 11, 2003

Refinery 'Burp' Irks Residents

By Tom Lochner Reach Tom Lochner at 510-262-2760 or tlochner@cctimes.com.

RICHMOND - A chemical release at the ChevronTexaco Richmond refinery Saturday night was a "burp" caused by a buildup of hydrogen sulfide gas that exceeded a safety flare's capability to burn it off, a Richmond fire official said.

Hundreds complained about the odor, and two dozen sought medical assistance.

"All of a sudden you've got this product that has to be vented or it'll explode," said Battalion Chief James Fajardo of the Richmond Fire Department. "I call it a 'burp.' Significant enough so flares could not burn it, so it was released into the atmosphere."

Contra Costa County hazardous materials officials, Bay Area Air Quality Management District officials and refinery officials could not be reached for comment Sunday.

"Chevron popped again?" said Marco Figueroa, 16, of San Pablo. "Man, they ought to shut it down." He and other residents of San Pablo, North Richmond and parts of Richmond reported hearing warning sirens between 9:15 p.m. and 9:25 p.m., an alert to "shelter in place" -- stay indoors while closing windows and shutting off air conditioners. 

Armando Rodriguez and his family heard a siren at their home on First Street in Richmond. Figueroa and his friends William Odom and Israel Fierro were sitting in San Pablo's Davis Park when they heard it. Fierro's parents were at home near Richmond's Nicholl Park. Ellen Jones was at home in the Community Heritage Senior Apartments in North Richmond.

"I had to close the windows. We could smell the stuff before the sirens went off, about 9:25 (p.m.)," said Jones, 70. The TV channel she was watching advised viewers in the area to shelter in place and later relayed the "all clear."

Fajardo said ChevronTexaco officials estimated they had fixed the problem by about 10:25 p.m. The alert was called off at 10:55 p.m., after Richmond Fire and county hazardous materials officials, with ChevronTexaco's assistance, took air samples at five locations that were all negative for hydrogen sulfide, Fajardo said.

Hydrogen sulfide, which emits a foul smell that some liken to rotten eggs, is toxic in high concentrations.

By 10:55 p.m., Richmond police and fire dispatchers had fielded more than 300 calls from residents as far away as Kensington complaining about the smell.

While the odor that wafted through neighborhoods downwind of the refinery Saturday night "may have been pungent," Fajardo said, "it was not at an acutely hazardous level."

As of 10:30 p.m. Saturday, 26 people had gone to Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Richmond complaining of various ills they believed were related to the chemical release, Fajardo said.

Residents interviewed by the Times said they or their family members suffered discomfort although none had sought medical attention.

"It smelled hella nasty, like ... urine," said William Odom, 13, of San Pablo. "All night long, my mother had a stomachache."

"My little sister said her head hurt when she woke me up at 1 o'clock," Figueroa said.

Fierro said he had a headache and his mother felt dizzy.

Said Jones, the North Richmond senior: "I have asthma, so it's hard for me to breathe anyway."


Posted on Tue, Aug. 12, 2003

Richmond refinery release strands Amtrak passengers

By Tom Lochner

About a dozen passengers detrained and some were stranded inside the locked Richmond Amtrak station for about an hour Saturday night after West County residents were warned to stay indoors because of a noxious refinery release.

Two Amtrak trains stopped to unload passengers, apparently unaware that the area was experiencing a potentially hazardous condition.

County health and Richmond public safety officials each said the other should have notified Amtrak. Rail service officials were checking to see if they were indeed told.

The incident left Amtrak passenger Margery Woodard, who was stuck in the station for nearly an hour, worried about health risks had the refinery emissions been more dangerous.

Shortly after 10 p.m., Woodard, a 74-year-old North Richmond resident, returning from a day trip to Sacramento, exited Amtrak train No. 751 at the darkened platform.

The stairs to the station lobby were barricaded. Woodard pressed the elevator button. Nothing. From the parking lot, a man shouted that the station was closed. Woodard noticed a faint smell of rotten eggs.

Earlier that evening, a release of hydrogen sulfide gas from the Chevron Richmond refinery had sent a rotten-egg-like odor wafting downwind. Sirens sounded about 9:15 p.m. across San Pablo, North Richmond and parts of Richmond, warning residents to stay indoors, shut windows and turn off air conditioners. The alert ended around 11 p.m. 

Contra Costa County hazardous materials specialist Paul Andrews said ChevronTexaco reported at 7:30 p.m. "a little plant upset" that led to the venting of some hydrogen sulfide gas. Although the venting had stopped about 9 p.m., Andrews said, Richmond fire and police dispatchers were still receiving many calls complaining of the smell.

"The levels of (hydrogen sulfide) were not life-threatening, nor did they have any long-term adverse health effects," Andrews said. "We sounded the sirens, even though we knew the refinery was stable, to get the people inside, where they could hear some news."

Meanwhile, about a dozen train riders, among them Woodard and her nephew Johnny White, stood on the Richmond Amtrak station platform wondering what was going on.

Several men came up from the parking lot and said there was a "shelter-in-place" order. The men helped some passengers climb a wall and fence. Several others left the station by taking a long walk along the tracks to the end of the fence. Woodard, who has what she describes as "a slight heart condition," decided to wait.

Using another passenger's cell phone, White asked a 911 dispatcher to contact BART, which shares the station with Amtrak.

About then, another southbound Amtrak train arrived.

"We notified the conductor there was a 'shelter-in-place,'" Woodard said. "He said, 'I can let you off at Emeryville. Go and get on. We're in a hurry.'"

Four or five remaining passengers got on. Woodard, White and another woman waited for BART police. About an hour after she got off the train, Woodard estimates, officers arrived and escorted the three from the station.

By this time, Woodard said, "I thought I may be having a heart attack. Pounding in the chest. Numbness in my arm.

"After I got home, I took a nitroglycerine pill and I was fine."

BART police Lt. Pamela Cherry said the alert prompted her agency to shut down the Richmond, El Cerrito Del Norte and El Cerrito Plaza stations.

"Maybe Amtrak didn't get the notification," Cherry said. "I wonder why they're not in the loop."

Andrews, the county hazmat specialist, said it was up to Richmond dispatchers to inform Amtrak. But Richmond police Sgt. Mike Pon said it was up to the county health department to notify other agencies, as well as the community, when there is an alert.

Amtrak officials said they were studying the incident and could not say if they had been alerted.

"Thank God we finally got out of there and it wasn't as bad as we thought it was," Woodard said. "The idea -- if it had really been a disaster. Children, disabled, older people.

"I was lying there, thinking about that all night."