Friday, March 26, 1999

1999-03 Chemical blast at Chevron refinery in Richmond

1999-03-26 "Chevron Oil Refinery Blast Rocks Richmond"
from "San Francisco Chronicle" []:
A big and fiery explosion at the Chevron refinery in Richmond Thursday afternoon sent flames and thick black smoke billowing into the air, forcing thousands of residents to lock themselves indoors to stay away from the fumes.
Three Chevron emergency response team workers were injured and up to 10 of the refinery's 1,425 workers were seen coughing as the smoke circled over the refinery and half a dozen ambulances raced in through the refinery gates. Bay Area Air Quality Management District officials said that although the fire looked serious, it was relatively non-toxic.
Chevron spokesman Terry Swartz said yesterday's explosion created "a very hot fire, and when you have burning liquid it's unpredictable. We're throwing everything we have at it."
Chevron's own fire department was joined by up to 50 firefighters from the Richmond Fire Department in battling the blaze.
The fire happened on the north side of the 2,500-acre refinery, where the Chevron plant processes 240,000 barrels of crude oil every day, Swartz said.
The winds sent the smoke -- and the odor -- drifting up to the Carquinez Bridge near Crockett, before shifting, driving it back down to the Richmond-San Rafael bridge, and on toward the El Cerrito and Berkeley waterfront area.
It was the second major refinery explosion in Contra Costa county in the past five weeks. On February 23, a fire in Tosco's Avon refinery killed three workers and injured two more. The last big explosion at the Chevron refinery was in March 1994, when toxic gas blew out of flares when some of the refinery's instruments failed, causing area residents to complain of illness.
Contra Costa County Health Services spokeswoman Elinor Blake said the 2:28 p.m. explosion happened in the heat exchanger of the Isomax plant, where hydro-cracking is carried out. Hydro-cracking is the process that changes heavy gas oil into gasoline and jet fuel.
Blake said her agency issued a "shelter in place" warning, asking residents to close and lock their windows and doors and close fireplace flues, in order to keep smoke and fumes from homes.
Residents said there was a 20-minute delay from the time they heard the explosion and saw the smoke to the time sirens from the county's emergency warning system went off.
County officials admitted there was a delay in the alerting system and said they were investigating the problem.
"The system is not officially up and running," said Tracy Hein-Silva, a county Health Services Department spokeswoman.
There are five sirens in Richmond.
An automatic dialing phone system was in working order, county officials said. The system dials the phones of homes in immediately affected areas and a recorded message instructs residents to remain indoors and turn off air-conditioners.
BART temporarily shut down its Richmond station and created a bus bridge between El Cerrito Del Norte and Richmond. Cars headed toward Interstate 580 from I-80 were diverted east on I-80 toward Sacramento as the cloud created by the explosion shifted miles in one direction, and then miles more in another as the quirky winds changed during the afternoon.
The accident happened about a mile from the nearest residential area. The fire and its smoke could be seen shooting straight up from all over the area yesterday, as far away as Walnut Creek. Dozens of people stopped their cars on local freeway ramps and streets and got out to have a look.
A huge plume of smoke billowed up, gray and white, from the refinery into the cloudy sky and one of the smoke stacks continued to shoot a gigantic orange ball of flame thousands of feet into sky.
At the eastern edge of the refinery, two men hurriedly loaded car parts on a truck, as they got ready to get out of the smoke-filled neighborhood.
"It kind of rumbled and the ground shook, and there was, like, a sonic boom," said Ronald Bugg, coughing as he loaded tire rims onto his truck from a nearby wrecking yard. "It sounded like a bomb."
Matthew Williams, his friend, also loading car parts from the nearby yard, said the explosion was terrifying.
"A giant mushroom of smoke exploded into the sky in this great big ball of fire, and kept burning for 15 minutes," Williams said. "There were at least three small explosions in the next few mintues after the first one. It was as if it was feeding on itself."
Police quickly blocked off all local roads leading toward the refinery, but dozens of curious onlookers gathered along Castro Street at east side of the refinery to gawk.
Two refinery employees suffered injuries in the effort to contain the fire after the blast occurred, according to Marielle Boortz, spokeswoman for the Chevron refinery, who issued a company apology for the event.
Boortz said officials still have no idea what caused the fire. But they were aware late yesterday of two injuries, both involving employees on the refinery's emergency response team who were helping to put out the fire, she said.
One suffered a sprained back, and the other suffered from heat exhaustion, and both received medical attention, though Boortz was not aware if they had been hospitalized late yesterday. A third employee suffered "stomach distress."
The refinery officials received word quickly that all employees were accounted for, and no one was injured directly in the blast, Boortz said.
The main problem in a fire that happens in the hydro-cracking unit, said air quality district spokesman Terry Lee, is the release of sulphur compounds, particularly hydrogen sulfide and sulfur dioxide.
"But we have a monitoring truck out there, and it can't detect either of those compounds," she said. "The human nose is also a very good monitor, able to detect levels of both compounds in the parts per billion range. So far, people on the site can't smell (either hydrogen sulfide or sulfur dioxide)."

1999-04-02 "Conflicting Assessments Of Refinery Warning Siren" by Jason B. Johnson from "San Francisco Chronicle"
Contra Costa County industry officials defended the warning siren that alerted area residents to last week's explosion at Chevron's Richmond refinery, saying it performed as it was supposed to.
But critics say that the emergency system and a separate telephone Community Alert Network, which have failed repeatedly over the years, both performed poorly when the fire broke out March 25.
"People shouldn't have to wonder about a chemical release," said Henry Clark, of the West County Toxics Coalition. "People should receive the message immediately."
Kathleen Imhoff, the director of the Community Warning System, and Anthony Semenza, the refinery's fire chief, said at a Richmond City Hall news conference that it took only 11 minutes to alert residents. They said upgrades are being installed that would make the system work even faster in the future.
The county's $5 million Community Warning System has been under development since 1993 by an independent agency funded by industry. It is designed to set off warning sirens when there is trouble at a nearby plant.
Residents would then go inside, close their doors and windows and turn on their TV or radio to get more information.
It is promoted as the largest warning system in the state and the most comprehensive in the nation.
The sirens sounded three times in Richmond and North Richmond within a half-hour of the explosion, which occurred at 2:28 p.m., Imhoff said.
Imhoff said 210 phone messages were sent to system terminals at schools and administrative centers throughout the county between 2:45 p.m. and 8:45 p.m.
"There is no such system in the country, or in the rest of the world for that matter," Imhoff said. "I know there's been problems, but I think you have to look at the big picture."
Richmond Fire Chief Alford Nero said that in most parts of the state warning systems consist of police or fire officials riding through neighborhoods with bullhorns to warn residents of an explosion or leak.
"That takes a lot longer than 11 minutes, I'll tell you that much," Nero said.
There are plans to install push--button activation units for the system at Contra Costa's refineries by the end of the year, Imhoff said.
Alert units would also be installed in area schools, rest homes, hospitals and day care centers. The upgrades would cut the 11-minute reaction time to sound sirens five minutes.
"Had we had that piece of equipment, sirens would have gone off in four minutes," Chevron Fire Chief Semenza said, holding a model of the push-button system.
But people in some neighborhoods said they did not hear the sirens.
"I live in the Point Richmond neighborhood. Our siren here is pretty close to us so it was loud enough," said Sara Eeles, a member of the community advisory panel to Chevron. "But some of our samplers in north Richmond and Parchester Village said that it was minimal."
While acknowledging that the Community Alert Network suffered technical problems last week, county health department spokeswoman Tracy Hein-Silva insisted that problems with the network have been exaggerated.
"There have only been two times in the history of activation where we feel it has not performed the way it's supposed to," she said.
The first incident occurred when an employee sabotaged the system in 1992. The second happened last week when the company, based in Albany, N.Y., mistakenly started calling Martinez residents instead of Richmond residents.
She said the county discovered the problem and they switched using zip code information to make the calls to the appropriate Richmond neighborhoods.
Because calls are made in alphabetical and numeric order, they don't necessarily reach the closest people first, Hein-Silva said.
Supervisor John Gioia said the Board of Supervisors plans to discuss the performance of the alert systems at Tuesday's meeting, including how quickly to classify the seriousness of an explosion and in what order to notify residents.