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Health Risks From Blast Minimal, Chevron Says
March 27, 1999
Jason B. Johnson, Christopher Heredia, Bernadette Tansey, Chronicle Staff Writers

Saturday, March 27, 1999

Chevron scrambled yesterday to downplay the health risks from an explosion at its Richmond refinery -- apparently caused by vapor leaking from a pipe -- that drove hundreds to area hospitals.

But Thursday's powerful blast and hours-long fire, which sent a plume of thick black smoke towering into the air, has enraged environmentalists and raised questions about the failure of a regional warning system.

The explosion led to calls for the Richmond City Council to enact a safety ordinance for the Chevron plant similar to a county law that oversees three other Contra Costa County refineries.

The 2:25 p.m. blast occurred in a hydrocracking unit, a processing unit that converts oil into gasoline and jet fuel. The fire was contained within two hours after the explosion, but `hot spots' were still smoldering yesterday afternoon.

Chevron's fire department and operators isolated lines that contain flammable material and secured the area to make it safe for investigators.

The cause of the explosion is still under investigation, but Chevron Fire Chief Tony Semenza said workers saw an iridescent vapor cloud shimmering in front of them just seconds before the blast.

It's likely that some kind of pipe leak allowed the vapor to reach an ignition source that could have been a furnace or another piece of equipment, Semenza said.

The workers triggered a plant warning siren and some operators tried to shut off the unit, but then it erupted in flames, according to Semenza.

All the workers managed to get out of the immediate area before the explosion.

Chevron Refinery General Manager Bill Steelman apologized for the ``regrettable'' incident.

``We're doing all we can to determine the cause and are working to ensure this never happens again,'' Steelman said in a press conference at the refinery yesterday.

Investigators from a variety of state regulatory agencies, the county, labor unions and Chevron were waiting to inspect the scene after the area was declared safe.

Officials said the hydrocracking unit would remain shut down during the investigation, but the rest of the refinery is continuing to operate.

The Chevron Richmond refinery, has about 1,425 employees and uses more than 100 contractors, is one of the largest refineries on the West Coast, with a 240,000 barrel-per-day maximum capacity.

The explosion will cut the Chevron's output in the state by about 15 percent, Steelman said.

Industry observers said extra shipments of gasoline will be coming into the Bay Area by ship this weekend, but that because of the highly speculative gasoline market, prices are likely to rise anyway.

``The rapid increase in prices is primarily being driven by uncertainty and speculation,'' said Claudia Chandler, assistant executive director for the California Energy Commission.

``Yes, people are making money,'' said Chandler. ``Everybody else is passing through their costs all the way down the line. It's the consumer that's left standing there.''

Steelman strongly denied accusations that Chevron had increased production in the wake of the fatal fire last month at the Tosco refinery near Martinez. He said the Richmond plant was producing 130,000 barrels a day.

Chevron union officials said they did not think overwork or long shifts contributed to the accident.

At the press conference, several Chevron doctors and experts insisted that the refinery is in good working condition and that there will be no serious health risks resulting from the fire.

Marty Gilles, Chevron environmental and safety manager, said two toxic substances, hydrogen sulfide and sulfur dioxide, were detected outside the refinery fences.

But it was only ``a tiny concentration'' that would result in only ``minor respiratory irritation,'' Gilles said.

But environmentalists blasted the company's statements and worried that the toxic fireball could severely impact the health of area residents.

Henry Clark of the West County Toxics Coalition called on Contra Costa officeholders to declare a state of emergency in the wake of the Chevron blast and the Tosco fire.

Calling for safety evaluations of all four of the county's refineries, Clark said the two disasters in just over a month raise serious questions about their condition and age.

``They're happening too frequently,'' Clark said. ``It's time for the officials and regulatory agencies to see the handwriting on the wall.''

Clark said he is concerned about the health effects of repeated exposures to toxic releases among residents in the low-income neighborhoods around Chevron and other industrial plants.

Richmond Councilman Tom Butt said he will ask the City Council next week to pass an industrial safety ordinance that would give the city the right to inspect and monitor the refinery's operations.

Butt criticized the city for not implementing an existing ordinance for inspecting the refinery's buildings and facilities. The ordinance, passed in 1997, required Chevron to hire an independent company to assess its facilities.

Councilwoman Donna Powers said Chevron, which wields tremendous political clout in Richmond, has had a mixed record. It has been a generous donor to nonprofit and civic organizations but has resisted repeated attempts to impose tougher regulations.

County Supervisor John Gioia wants tougher oversight of the Chevron refinery.

``My biggest concern is that the Chevron refinery is the only one of four in the county that is not subject to a local refinery safety ordinance,'' Gioia said.

``Basically, I'm calling on the city to enact its own ordinance or adopt the county's ordinance or authorize the county to enforce oversight though the Department of Health,'' he added. ``I thought of it as I was driving to pick up my son from (his Richmond) school the day of the accident.''

Assemblyman Tom Torlakson, D-Antioch, said he will hold a hearing of the Labor and Employment Committee of the state Assembly in Contra Costa County on April 9 to investigate the series of accidents in the county.

Chronicle staff writer Benjamin Pimentel contributed to this report.