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Chevron Fined $1M in Refinery Fire

Friday, February 1, 2013

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Chevron's apparent decision to ignore its own inspectors' decade-old recommendation to replace a corroded pipe has triggered a record fine against the oil company in the blast and blaze that shook its California refinery last August.

The California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) has issued 25 citations—11 serious willful, 12 serious, and two general—and $963,200 in fines against Chevron in the series of explosions and fire that struck its refinery Aug. 6, 2012, in Richmond, CA.

The fine is a record for the state agency.

Chevron Richmond fire

The accident engulfed some employees in a cloud of vapor, but no one was killed.

Among Cal/OSHA's allegations: Chevron ignored recommendations by its own Reliability Department as early as 2002 to replace the pipe, which later leaked and ruptured, triggering the blasts.

The company also violated its own written corrosion mitigation guidelines and procedures in continuing to use the failing pipe and did not follow emergency response guidelines after the leak began, Cal/OSHA said.

Cal/OSHA said Chevron had failed to protect its own employees and those of scaffolding subcontractor Brand Energy Services of California, which was working in the area.

Cal/OSHA also cited Brand Energy for three general violations and fined that company $2,060.

A Leak, and Then Fire

The fire began after a corroded pipe in Chevron's #4 Crude Unit began leaking. After investigating the fire and Chevron's leak repair procedures, Cal/OSHA inspectors concluded that Chevron "did not follow the recommendations of its own inspectors and metallurgical scientists to replace the corroded pipe that ultimately ruptured and caused the fire."

They also found that Chevron "did not follow its own emergency shutdown procedures" and violated its own Process Safety Management (PSM) procedures, which Cal/OSHA requires to prevent the catastrophic release of highly hazardous chemicals.

Remarkably, no one was seriously injured in the Chevron blast and fire, although a cloud of vapor engulfed employees and 15,000 area residents sought treatment for the fumes released in the explosions.

Inspection Lapse

Chevron later admitted that it had not inspected the pipe section that later ruptured during scheduled maintenance in 2011.

Reports later emerged that refinery employees had previously complained about unchecked corrosion after an earlier fire at the 110-year-old facility in October 2011. After that fire, workers told regulators that Chevron was ignoring corrosion at the facility.

In addition, investigators from the U.S. Chemical Safety Board discovered that corrosion had eroded 80 percent of the carbon-steel pipe wall’s thickness—well above the level at which Chevron’s policies call for replacement.

The refinery is the third largest in California and processes 245,000 barrels of crude oil a day. The damaged refining unit is still being repaired.

Health Violations

The 25-page list of health citations include numerous "serious willful" violations, a category reserved for the most egregious infractions.

Among those allegations:

  • Chevron allowed employeees into the fire-damaged restricted area 19 days after the disaster, an area designated an Order to Preserve zone by Cal/OSHA. The workers were "carrying a rolling ladder" to take a gas sample from the ruptured pipe, Cal/OSHA said.
Chevron Richmond fire
U.S. Chemical Safety Board

Chevron allowed employees back into the fire-damaged area 19 days after the blast, Cal/OSHA said.

The employees had been "instructed to breach to the red 'danger' tape barricades" around the restricted area, the citations say.

  • Chevron allowed Brand's employees to wear inappropriate, loose clothing near the leaking pipe, exposing them to "the hazards of uncontrolled leaking petroleum hydrocarbons in excess of 600 degrees Fahrenheit, including potential thermal burns."
  • Chevron also failed to ensure that Brand workers "in the direct vicinity of the leak" were wearing respiratory protection when they responded to the leak, Cal/OSHA documents say.

Some of those employees were "engulfed in a dense vapor cloud without respiratory protection," the documents say.

  • Chevron also is accused of ignoring emergency procedures "developed precisely" to respond to the event that occurred (an uncontrolled hydrocarbon leak underneath the piping insulation). Rather than shutting down the Crude Unit per procedure, one or more employees "took an offensive action using a pike pole and fire hoses to pry and blast the insulation from the pipe," the citations say.
  • Chevron even "failed to abide by its own Stop Work Authority program when Brand employees raised concerns about the hazardous conditions present at the work site and ordered Brand employees to continue," the citations say.
  • The citations also allude to the employees' earlier concerns about the leak, saying Chevron "failed to utilize available information pertaining to the unique hazards identified from past piping inspections relating to the piping condition" before responding to the leak.

Safety Violations

The list of safety citations alleges a variety of serious electrical violations; inadequate emergency eyewash and shower equipment stations; process safety management violations; failure to replace piping system fittings, valves and piping for months or years after their scheduled replacement dates (two willful violations), and a broken fire main.

Company Response

In a statement, Chevron said it was reviewing the Cal/OSHA citations and "continuing to cooperate" with authorities in the various investigations underway. The company noted that it had submitted an update on corrective actions taken since the "event." Those actions include, according to Chevron:

  • Enhancing inspections of piping components potentially susceptible to sulfidation corrosion;
  • 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; and
  • Creating more management oversight and accountability for process safety and re-emphasizing focus on process safety.
Brand Energy
Brand Energy Services

Brand Energy, which was working for Chevron as a scaffolding subcontractor at the refinery, was cited for three general violations and fined $2,060.

"Chevron is committed to implementing these changes promptly and on a sustained basis at Richmond and across our manufacturing network as appropriate," the statement said.

Brand Energy did not immediately respond to a request for comment.


Tagged categories: Accidents; Brand Energy & Infrastructure Services (BEIS); Certifications and standards; Corrosion protection; hazardous materials; Maintenance programs; Oil and Gas; OSHA; Pipelines; Protective clothing; Respirators

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