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Feds Challenge Chevron on Pipe Material

Friday, December 21, 2012

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Federal officials are pressing Chevron to justify its selection of an alloy to replace the carbon-steel pipe destroyed in an August blaze at the company's refinery in Richmond, CA.

Chevron officials say the replacement pipe, made with metal alloy 9 Chrome, will resist the type of corrosion that led to a series of explosions and a massive fire on Aug. 6.

The city held a public meeting Wednesday (Dec. 19) evening to provide information and debate what type of material to use in the new pipes.

Chevron has requested permits to use 9 Chrome in replacement pipelines at the Richmond refinery where corrosion led to a massive explosion and fire in August 2012 and a smaller blaze in October 2011.

The meeting came one day after the city's metallurgical consultants backed Chevron's choice of 9 Chrome. However, City Manager Bill Lindsay said he was still not ready to issue permits that would allow Chevron to begin replacing the pipes.

City officials said independent experts would review the company's latest analysis before deciding whether to grant more permits.

Corrosion, Inspection Lapses

The August explosion injured five plant workers and forced tens of thousands of area residents to seek shelter in their homes. More than 900 residents sought emergency medical treatment for various effects of the fire.

Chevron cited corrosion caused by high-temperature, high-sulfur oil as the likely cause of the fire. The company also acknowledged that it had failed to inspect a five-foot section of the line for corrosion during scheduled maintenance in October and November 2011.

The 110-year-old refinery, located about 10 miles northeast of San Francisco, was also the site of a smaller fire in October 2011, which prompted employees to complain to the state Department of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) that Chevron was ignoring corrosion at the facility.

"We're concerned about increased corrosion," one worker told Carla Fritz, Cal/OSHA safety inspector, the San Francisco Chronicle reported. "We've increased temperatures and increased rates, and it takes a toll on the equipment."

U.S. Chemical Safety Board

The CSB is questioning Chevron on whether 9 Chrome is a better choice than stainless steel, pointing to a February 2012 fire at a BP refinery that used the chromium material.

After the October 2011 fire, federal investigators from the U.S. Chemical Safety Board discovered that corrosion had eroded 80 percent of the carbon-steel pipe wall's thickness, which is well above the level at which Chevron's policies call for replacement.

The pipeline material was the likely culprit in both blazes, investigators said.

"Armed with knowledge of improper metals used in processing a corrosive product in one part of the refinery," Cal/OSHA said, Chevron "was responsible for investigating other metals used in processing corrosive products throughout the refinery to assure their safety."

Material Concerns

The Chemical Safety Board wants Chevron to justify its selection of pipe made with 9 Chrome, warning that the same pipe material was badly damaged by corrosion before springing a leak and sparking a fire in February that extensively damaged a BP refinery near Bellingham, WA.

The company announced in October that it planned to install 9 Chrome, which is higher in the corrosion-fighting component chromium. Chevron has said the BP incident appeared to have been caused by a semi-stagnant "dead-leg" that, over 29 years in high-temperature service, allowed corrosives to build up in a vapor space at the top of the piping.

Federal investigators said stainless steel was higher in chromium than 9 Chrome. Chevron's internal guidelines refer to stainless steel pipe as being immune to sulfur-related corrosion.

Richmond officials are holding up the permit process for the refinery reconstruction, potentially delaying plans to return the plant to full operation in January, Chevron said. The company told officials that it would have to suspend repairs and lay off as many as 600 workers if it didn't get the permits it needed by Thursday (Dec. 20).

Alloy vs. Stainless

In a technical report on material selection, Chevron defended its choice of 9 Chrome alloy pipe, stating that it "satisfies all engineering and fire-safety standards, and other industry recommended practices."

Responding to the CSB's suggestion to use stainless steel, the report alleges that using stainless steel would introduce a new damage mechanism in the form of microscopic stress corrosion cracking from chlorides, which is more difficult to monitor and inspect.

Richmond's two metallurgical consultants and an expert retained by Chevron all submitted letters to the city concluding that Chevron's selection of 9 Chrome complies with technical codes and industry standards for the crude unit.

At Wedneday'a meeting, County Supervisor John Gioia said that the consultants' findings failed to address whether the new material was the best to avoid another accident.

U.S. Chemical Safety Board

The CSB said that it has not received responses from Chevron to 42 document requests; Chevron says it has responded to more than half.

The reports are "limited to whether the piping is industry standard and meets the fire code, which is a very different issue from what has the lowest risk to avoid catastrophic failure," Gioia said.

"We want this community to know that we take the incident that happened on Aug. 6 very seriously," said Barbara Smith, Chevron's Senior Business Manager. "It doesn't reflect who we are. It doesn't live up to the expectations that we have for ourselves."

Overdue Responses

In an email Wednesday to Mayor Gayle McLaughlin, CSB managing director Daniel Horowitz said Chevron had still not responded to 42 document requests, which were now more than 10 days overdue, the Richmond Confidential reported.

The mayor said she was disappointed by the delay: "[I]n terms of response and transparency, I have concerns."

In an email response to the mayor, Chevron general manager Nigel Hearne wrote:

"In responding to this flood of information requests, Chevron U.S.A. has produced approximately 300,000 pages of documents in only four months. To date, we have provided complete responses to more than half of the CSB's subpoena requests, produced according to the agency's own prioritization."


Tagged categories: Corrosion protection; Explosions; Oil and Gas; OSHA; Pipeline; Pipelines; Stainless steel; Steel; U.S. Chemical Safety Board; Violations

Comment from David Johnson, (12/21/2012, 6:16 PM)

Having a public hearing to inform them of changes to the steel chemistry used in the pipes is probably a good idea. Holding up the permits is stupid. Does everyone think the government must make all the decisions for us? Chevron is a sophisticated comany with many resources. They know what they need to do. The City's "Consultant" has already approved it. Fix the pipes and move on. Delays cost money. By the sounds of it, it appears the City of Richmond must have passed one of those recreational marijuana laws......

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