Friday, February 1, 2002
2002-02-01 "Leak from Chevron plant confines neighbors; Richmond refinery 'needs to do better'"
by Henry K. Lee, Christopher Heredia, Jason B. Johnson from "San Francisco Chronicle"
Richmond -- Residents near the Chevron refinery in Richmond were forced to stay indoors for several hours yesterday after the latest chemical leak from the plant rattled nerves but caused no injuries.
A small but unknown quantity of sulfur dioxide, sulfur trioxide and hydrogen sulfide escaped when the facility's sulfur recovery unit failed at 12: 45 p.m., said Chevron spokesman Dean O'Hair.
Contra Costa County health officials defined the affected area -- which included hundreds of homes covering 4 square miles -- three hours later.
The incident triggered the county's community warning system, with sirens activated at 1:36 p.m. and residents of parts of Richmond and San Pablo directed to remain indoors -- at homes, offices and nearby schools.
"This is horrible -- it shouldn't be happening around schools like this," said Audrey George, who rushed to Peres Elementary School to pick up her 8- year-old granddaughter, Alexandria Warren, who is asthmatic.
"It happens at least two times a year," George said. "Chevron needs to do better and stop the hazards in this community."
Contra Costa health authorities and Chevron officials sampled air in the neighborhoods around the plant to monitor chemical levels, but no dangerous levels were detected, O'Hair said.
"We were concerned that there might be some odor in the community," O'Hair said. "Although the event was rather short-lived, the sirens continued until the county is convinced that everything's all right."
Some residents said the refinery should have notified county officials of the release immediately after the unit failed.
"This is an ongoing problem," said Julia May, staff scientist at Communities for a Better Environment, an Oakland group that has been pushing for faster response to chemical leaks.
The refinery's sulfur recovery unit is used to remove sulfur from crude oil that is processed into gasoline, jet fuel and other products, O'Hair said. Exactly how the chemicals were released remains under investigation.
The chemicals released yesterday can cause skin, nose, throat and eye irritation. Few people reported smelling the rotten-eggs smell associated with sulfur.
Two people sought treatment at Doctors Medical Center in San Pablo, but it was not clear whether their problems were related to the release.
Jim Hattum, a county hazardous materials specialist, said county workers had walked the refinery's perimeter taking measurements of the particulates released into the air.
"They went up and down the fence line," said Hattum. "We have not gotten any indications that there were any significant amounts of (chemicals) that went beyond the fence line."
In July, Chevron agreed to pay $300,000 in fines for failing to meet air quality standards at the Richmond refinery, including infractions that contributed to a fiery explosion in 1999.
In August 2000, a leak at the refinery spewed sulfur and nitrogen over the city but caused no injuries. In 1994, a cloud of hydrogen sulfide gas leaked, sickening residents for miles around. In 1989, an explosion injured nine employees and sent residue raining down on Richmond.
"It's too dangerous to live around here," said Hugo Banuelos as he picked up his 8-year-old daughter, Brenda, at Peres Elementary. Brenda, who covered her face with her hands, said, "I'm worried because of the chemicals."