Cal/OSHA poses record fine for fire at Chevron’s Richmond refinery

California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) issued 25 citations and proposed fining Chevron USA nearly $1 million for state safety standard violations stemming from an Aug. 6, 2012, fire at Chevron’s Richmond refinery. The fine would be the largest in Cal/OSHA’s history, the state agency said on Jan. 30.

Chevron immediately said it would appeal the action. “Although we acknowledge that we failed to live up to our own expectations in this incident, we do not agree with several of the Cal/OSHA findings and its characterization of some of the alleged violations as ‘willful,’” it said in a statement.

Cal/OSHA said the citations include 11 termed “willful serious” and 12 termed “serious.” The proposed $963,200 in penalties are the highest allowed under state law, according to Ellen Widess, the agency’s chief. “Our investigators found willful violations in Chevron’s response before, during and after the fire,” she said.

The fire broke out when a severely corroded pipe in the refinery’s No. 4 crude unit began to leak, Cal/OSHA said. Chevron managers did not shut down the unit but instructed workers to remove insulation, which led to the pipe’s rupture and a massive fire, the agency said. While there were no serious worker injuries, a reported 15,000 residents of surrounding communities sought treatment after breathing emissions from the fire, it added.

Its initial investigation found that Chevron had not followed recommendations from its own inspectors and metallurgical scientists dating back to 2002 to replace the corroded pipe. Cal/OSHA also determined that the company had not followed its own shutdown procedures once the leak was identified, and its own and Brand Scaffolding’s employees who were working at the site.

The agency said it classified 23 of the violations as “serious” due to the realistic possibility of worker injuries and deaths in the fire. Eleven of these serious violations were also classified as “willful” because Cal/OSHA found Chevron did not take reasonable actions to eliminate refinery conditions that it knew posed hazards to employees, and because it intentionally and knowingly failed to comply with state safety standards, it indicated.

In its Jan. 30 statement, Chevron noted that it submitted an update two days earlier to Contra Costa County’s Health Services division on the status of the company’s internal investigation and corrective actions which it is developing and implementing following the fire, including:

• Enhancing inspections of piping components potentially susceptible to sulfidation corrosion since carbon steel components with low-silicon content can corrode at an accelerated rate. “This inspection program is being applied throughout our refinery system worldwide,” Chevron noted.

• Strengthening reliability programs for piping and equipment, and enhancing competency requirements for leaders, inspectors and engineers.

• Strengthening leak response protocols and reinforcing the authority that everyone has to shut down equipment.

• Creating more management oversight and accountability for process safety, and re-emphasizing a process safety focus.

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com.

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