Residents told to expect flaring as Chevron refinery begins maintenance
Chevron's Richmond refinery began maintenance this week that will last a month and a half and bring in 1,650 additional contractors. (Photo by Rachel Waldholz)
By: Rachel Waldholz | October 6, 2011 – 3:00 pm
Residents near Chevron’s Richmond Refinery can expect to see flames at the plant’s flare stacks over the next month and a half, as the refinery enters one of its occasional maintenance periods.
On Monday, the refinery began work that will bring an additional 1,650 contractors into Richmond over the next four to six weeks. That work will include some visible flaring as excess gas is burned off during maintenance, according to an alert emailed to community members.
Flaring at the refinery has long been a flashpoint between Chevron and local residents. The refinery now sends out a notice when it knows it will be flaring.
“We’ve reduced it so much over the last few years that the community is not used to seeing it,” Chevron Spokesperson Melissa Ritchie said.
Flares are used to release pressure and dispose of gases that build up during the refining process. The gas is burned as it is released, to break it down into less harmful molecules, including carbon dioxide and water. But the process still releases chemicals like sulfur dioxide that are associated with health problems like asthma. In 2003, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District began to monitor flaring, in response to organizing by community groups, and in 2005, the agency ordered local refineries to begin reducing the use of flares. In August, Chevron agreed to pay $170,000 in BAAQMD fines for air quality violations on 27 days between 2005 and 2009. According to Ritchie, the refinery has sharply cut the frequency of flares in recent years, reducing flaring by 95 percent from 2004 to 2010.
Chevron would not disclose any details on the maintenance, citing worries that discussing which equipment is offline could be seen as an effort to affect prices in fuel trading markets (Bloomberg reported that news of the overhaul did send California-blend gasoline prices higher on Tuesday.) Reuters, citing anonymous sources, reported that the refinery will be overhauling a crude distillation unit and a lube oils plant. Distillation units heat crude oil in a column to separate it by density into products like gasoline and diesel. Lube oils plants produce lubricants like engine oil.
The city has adjusted the timing of traffic lights around the refinery to accommodate the additional traffic of the temporary workers. About 62 percent of the workers will come from within 50 miles, while 38 percent come from further away. Ritchie said that local hotels and restaurants could expect an uptick in business – Chevron pays a daily per diem for expenses and supplies each temp with a list of Richmond restaurants.
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