A Year After Richmond Refinery Fire, Community Air Monitors Still Not Working

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Stephen Schiller/Flickr

Smoke billows from the Chevron Richmond Refinery fire on August 6, 2012.

It's been almost a year since an explosion and fire at the Chevron refinery in Richmond sent plumes of black smoke into the air.

Fifteen-thousand people flooded into local hospitals after breathing the fumes, but there was no way to assess what was in the noxious smoke. The air monitoring systems were inadequate -- and they still are. It's a big concern for the thousands of people who live near the Bay Area's five refineries.

Reporter Charla Bear gets the details from KQED Science reporter Amy Standen.

CHARLA BEAR: So, Amy, right after the Chevron fire happened, a lot of people were calling for better air monitoring in the region. What did they want?

AMY STANDEN: What communities want -- and not just in Richmond, -- is more and better air monitors. As we saw after the fire, monitors were miles away form the source, and they just didn't provide much real-time information that people could go online and see. Richmond residents have been asking for a better system for years. In 2010, Chevron agreed to provide one and struck a deal with the city. But that didn't happen.

Fast-forward two years to the 2012 fire, and Chevron says, "OK now we're really moving forward with this air monitoring system."

They came up with a plan to build three monitors along the refinery's fence line, and then three more in the city of Richmond, where people actually live.

Chevron said, "We'll have this up and running in early 2013."

But here we are in July, and while the fenceline monitors are in place and working, the community monitors are not.

BEAR: What's holding up the improvements?

STANDEN: Well, it depends on who you ask. There do seem to have been some logistical problems -- not enough electricity to power the equipment at one site, for example. Chevron says the city has been slow to OK the plans, and some community members agree.

BEAR: Why is Chevron doing this monitoring?

STANDEN: It's a good question. After all we have an agency -- the Bay Area Air Quality Management District -- that you'd think would be doing this. But, as we saw in the 2012 fire, there are real shortcomings to the the system that's in place now.

That's why it's fallen to individual communities to negotiate these deals with refineries. For example, the city of Rodeo has an air monitoring system near the Conoco Phillips refinery. But in some cases, these agreements have been kind of a bust. For example, in 2003, Valero struck a deal with the city of Benicia to put an air monitoring system into place. Plans were drawn up, equipment was brought. But the website never came online, and after a couple years no one could agree on who was in charge. So there's a trailer fill of air monitoring equipment somewhere in Benicia that's just been unplugged. If it happens, Chevron's system in Richmond would be the most sophisticated air monitoring system out there.

BEAR: How exactly would these monitors work?

STANDEN: There are different kinds, but one is called the open path monitor. It's pretty cool. It's a machine that shoots a beam, and behind the beam is a sensor. Anything that interferes with that beam essentially leaves a certain signature that points to a specific chemical. And this can happen in real time, so you can go online and see, for example, how much benzene is near this monitor at that moment.

BEAR: Once we do have the system in place, what will people be able to do with the information?

STANDEN: Well, that's complicated. That agency I mentioned, the Air District, doesn't recognize the data from these air monitors. They say it's not compatible with their systems. And that's important, because it's the Air District that has the authority to penalize a refinery if it emits too much of something. So if and when these local systems are up and running, you could argue that the data won't have a lot of teeth -- it's not enforceable. But when you talk to community members they say they know this, and that the first step is knowing what we're breathing. The data itself will be empowering.


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