Smoke From Flaring at Chevron's Richmond Refinery Seen From Across the Bay

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A flare at the Chevron refinery in Richmond sent smoke and flames into the air early Friday afternoon.  (Courtesy of Jesse MacQuiddy)

Two agencies have launched investigations into a flaring incident at Chevron's Richmond refinery that sent flames from a stack at the facility and produced a massive column of black smoke visible across the central Bay Area.

A "unit upset" took place at the refinery at 11:20 a.m., according to Daniel Vasquez, a specialist at the Contra Costa Hazardous Materials Program. The flaring had stopped by 1 p.m.

Chevron told the agency about the incident about 35 minutes after it began, Vasquez said, prompting the department to send crews to the facility to launch an investigation and take air samples near the plant.

The Bay Area Air Quality Management District is also probing the release and has staff on site, according to agency spokesman Ralph Borrmann.

Chevron issued a statement that looks similar to many of the statements it has issued in recent years about its flaring operations, providing no details about what led to the incident and emphasizing that flaring is used as a safety device to relieve pressure.

While the industry has emphasized the safety aspects of flaring — it serves as a way to relieve dangerously high pressure when refinery units malfunction — environmentalists have long complained that the operations emit toxic substances into nearby communities.

Those concerns were voiced again Friday by Hollin Kretzmann, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, which has been strongly critical of refinery operations at Chevron and elsewhere.

"This massive plume of smoke spewing into the air we breathe should be the last straw for the Newsom administration and local air regulators," Kretzmann said in an emailed statement. "Regulators have allowed this refinery to foul our air again and again and again, and regulatory slaps on the wrist aren’t enough to protect the lungs of nearby residents. It’s time for the governor to end refinery pollution by shutting this dangerous place down and leading a just transition away from dirty fossil fuels."

In fact, Chevron has had more flaring incidents than the region's other four refineries in recent years. In 2019 it had 38 such episodes, more than Valero in Benicia, Phillips 66 in Rodeo and the Marathon and PBF facilities in Martinez combined, according to the air district.

In late 2016 a malfunction at the Richmond refinery sent a rotten egg odor across the bay into San Francisco.

In August 2012 a much larger accident took place at Chevron when a fire sent up a huge plume of smoke over a large swath of the East Bay, sending some 15,000 nearby residents to hospitals, mostly for breathing problems.

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Friday's flaring comes amid significant changes in the Bay Area's oil refining industry.

On Thursday Phillips 66 announced that it planned to turn its Rodeo refinery into a large renewable fuels plant.

Executives with the Marathon Petroleum Corp. say they want to turn the company's Martinez refinery, which they are shutting down, into a large renewable fuels facility as well.