Lone Worker Found Inside NuStar Plant During Massive Blaze Was a Contractor

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Firefighters hose down adjacent storage tanks after a fire and explosion at NuStar Energy's facility in Crockett on Oct 15, 2019. (Contra Costa County Fire Protection District/Twitter)

After responding to a major explosion and fire at the NuStar Energy plant in Crockett on Tuesday, rescue workers found only one person inside the facility — a contract worker who had been brought in to perform maintenance and was reportedly unable to tell firefighters what material was inside the tanks that were ablaze.

A spokesman for California's Department of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) said the worker was found trapped at the plant and had to be rescued by firefighters in the moments after emergency responders arrived.

Chris Cho, a NuStar representative, confirmed on Friday that the worker was not employed by the energy company, but declined to reveal the name of the worker's employer.

"Unfortunately, since the contractor is not our employee, and part of the ongoing investigation, we are not at liberty to release that information. The contractor was at our terminal that day performing scheduled routine maintenance," Cho said in an email.

An entry, added just an hour after the fire, to a California Office of Emergency Services hazardous spills database, described the situation before the worker was rescued.

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"The facility was evacuated but there is one contract employee that could not get out of the building and they are in the back of the facility. Caller stated that the fire department is aware of the contractor location," the entry stated.

The worker was not seriously injured, Cal/OSHA spokesman Frank Polizzi said Friday.

NuStar on Friday afternoon released its 72-hour follow-up report to the county. The report notes the cause of the fire, which started at approximately 1:48 p.m. on Tuesday and was abated at about 9 p.m., is still unknown and under investigation. There were less than 3,000 barrels of denatured ethanol in each of the two tanks that caught fire, plus "an unknown quantity of other potential fuels (diesel and jet) released through broken lines," according to the report.

The report also states that the terminal was evacuated within approximately two minutes, with the exception of the lone contractor, who was rescued within 20 minutes. There were no employee or contractor injuries and one firefighter sustained a minor burn injury.

"I think it's important to understand what training workers, whether they be contractors or employees, went through," said Contra Costa County Supervisor John Gioia, who said the contractor was unable to give emergency workers any information about the tanks' contents.

A petrochemical facility, he added, needs to have a system in place for people who understand the plant to meet with first responders on arrival during emergencies.

"It's less important whether it's a contractor or an employee and more about ensuring everybody there, however long they've worked there, is sufficiently trained to maximize safety and reduce harm at the facility," said Gioia, who sits on the board of the Bay Area Air Quality Management District and the California Air Resources Board.

Gioia said the front gate of the NuStar facility was locked when firefighters arrived and that its emergency fire suppression system was not activated.

NuStar has said there was "initial confusion" about which tanks were involved because the explosion and fire erupted so quickly.

"Given the intensity of the fire during the first few minutes, they could not get close enough to verify which tanks were on fire," Cho said.

Company officials say the power at the terminal has been restored. But Cal/OSHA, earlier this week, ordered that operations at the facility be suspended.

"All movements of product into and out of the terminal are halted, as we assess the damage and develop a plan for repairs," Cho said, adding that he didn't know when operations would resume or how much the fire and suspension of operations would cost the company.

Cal/OSHA inspectors issued an order to preserve evidence in the two tanks and the pipes involved in the blaze. They also issued an order to cease operations at the facility "until we can confirm that operations can resume safely," said Erika Monterroza, another Cal/OSHA representative.

"Cal/OSHA is working expeditiously to identify and correct hazards that may impact workers' safety at the NuStar Energy facility or that of the surrounding community," she said.

The fire sent up a huge plume of smoke for hours, prompting a shelter-in-place order for nearby communities and the closure of a section of Interstate 80.

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Contra Costa County health officials detected elevated levels of particulate matter at the time of the fire, according to Randy Sawyer, the county's chief environmental health and hazardous materials officer.

However, that agency and the Air District have yet to release data on the air quality tests taken during the emergency.

Seven patients who complained of respiratory distress went to the emergency room at Sutter Solano Medical Center in Vallejo, according to a hospital spokesperson.

The emergency rooms at Kaiser's Richmond, Oakland and Vallejo hospitals did not see a significant increase in the number of patients as a result of the fire, said Kaiser representative Deniene Erickson.

The fire is under investigation by the Contra Costa County Fire Department, the Air District and Cal/OSHA. However, the Chemical Safety Board, an independent federal agency that investigates serious industrial chemical accidents, confirmed that it was not investigating the blaze.