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Jim Rogers Response to Chevron Fire

I received the following from Councilmember Jim Rogers, who asked that I distribute it to E-FORUM readers.


Re: Rogers Wants New Safety Program at Chevron

Tom Butt's 1/24/07 E-Forum detailed his plan to fine Chevron $6000/minute for each minute that the siren warning system is activated.
I want to thank Tom for letting me convey to his E-Forum list some  ideas that I have.
First I want to  clarify that I joined Tom, Gayle McLaughlin and Tony Thurmond in opposing the motion of the Council to put off the matter until we get the  report from Chevron on the recent fire.
I  would prefer that we get safety guarantees out of Chevron.
Accordingly, I made a motion at the Council meeting on the 23rd to drop the proposal to fine Chevron if they would agree to an independent  safety expert having full access to their operations, including employees and including wandering around the  refinery.
Only Councilmember Marquez supported that motion.
Being able to  insist on Chevron taking every possible measure to increase safety would ensure that if Chevron, at some point in the future turns into an irresponsible safety corner-cutting operator, we could find out about it and take action sooner rather than later.
Lest anyone think this can't/doesn't happen, recall the General Chemical spill in 1993 that sent tens of thousands to hospitals. afterwards we found out that there were numerous sloppy safety ( I use the term loosely) procedures in place.
In the mid 90s, I was a County Supervisor and wrote and passed the Good Neighbor ordinance because there were irresponsible quick buck operators playing fast and loose with safety and  people were  dying as a result. After one fatal tragedy, we got the Cal-OSHA report and it was about 8 inches thick with the safety violations of the refinery. Ironically enough, the refinery's PR team had been at the Board of Supervisors a month earlier lecturing me about how the Good Neighbor ordinance to impose safety requirements wasn't needed and was a political giveaway to organized labor.
The various other levels of government that were supposed to be ensuring that proper safety practices were followed failed miserably, just as they did at preventing the General Chem toxic fire.
As Scoop Nisker used to say "If you don't like the news, go out and make some of your own."
Unfortunately, local governments are hamstrung by a very complicated body of law that makes it hard to regulate refineries.     
 The devil is in the details.
Assessing large fines when the warning system goes off may not be a bad idea, but we heard testimony at the City Council meeting from refinery affiliated experts that we could expect the refineries to react by not sounding the siren. Tom proposes to fix that by fining them if the siren should have been sounded. However, it's not as simple as the more sirens the better. Too many sirens and the person out walking the dog finishes the walk instead of sheltering in place immediately, potentially with disastrous consequences if the release is serious.   Even if there is some chance they are caught and fined, maybe the refineries take the chance of a fine  instead  of the certainty.
But my biggest objection to using sirens to fine  Chevron  is that  focusing on avoiding sirens  sounding  is not  necessarily the same as focusing on avoiding a worst case, Bhopal like disaster. Some operations at Chevron are relatively unlikely to cause the siren to be sounded , but may be the type of chemical that can create a Bhopal type tragedy. Other parts of the operation may have relatively benign chemicals, but a high likelihood of blowing up. Do we want Chevron to be artificially encouraged to focus limited resources on preventing  the non-dangerous fires and ignoring the dangerous parts of their operation?
Though there is a devil in the details, I don't believe there is a devil in the Chevron. From what I can piece together, Chevron management takes safety seriously, and has for a long time.(Tho chevron thought there was a devil in me, and thanked me for my work on the Good Neighbor ordinance by spending about $40,000 trying (unsuccessfully)  to keep me off the Richmond City Council.)
The fact that Chevron has twice as many fires as another refinery that it is 4 times larger than doesn't mean Chevron is twice as sloppy about safety. Quite the opposite.
Tom has argued that his siren based fine proposal isn't about safety, it is about Chevron compensating our
city for Chevron's impacts. While that is a commendable goal, we have other ways to deal with financial issues, and we have relatively limited ways of dealing with safety.
By the way, don't get lulled into a sense of false security because we have an ordinance that requires safety reviews after a release/fire. Tho this is certainly a great idea, a refinery is a vastly complicated system of many moving parts, almost all of which are not going to be involved in a review of one particular breakdown.
This is a very complicated issue, and I would appreciate any thoughts  any  readers have.
I will discuss those thoughts on my Misterogers' Neighborhoods Updates (to subscribe   elirapty@aol.com   ) Please feel free to contact me.

Jim Rogers