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'Slap on the Wrist': Chevron Settles Multiple Refinery Violations, Including One That Sent Odor to SF

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A section of Chevron’s Richmond oil refinery. (Josh Cassidy/KQED)

Chevron, one of the largest energy companies on the planet, has agreed to pay less than $150,000 to settle more than two dozen violations at its Richmond refinery over a two-year period.

The agreement with local air regulators includes one penalty, an odor nuisance, tied to an incident that sent toxic gas into the air that's believed to have traveled miles away to San Francisco.

The Bay Area Air Quality Management District announced Monday that Chevron settled 29 violations associated with the refinery between 2016 and 2018. Several violations stem from flaring operations, where typically there is some sort of problem at the refinery and the facility needs to send gas to its flares.

Twice in late December 2016, dozens of San Francisco residents complained of a rotten egg smell shortly after elevated concentrations of hydrogen sulfide were detected in Point Richmond, developments that were revealed by KQED in the days afterward.

The refinery malfunctions associated with the gas releases were tied to problems with a device that knocks out water from a gas compressor and a refinery lube oil compressor.

The following May, the air district issued four notices of violation against Chevron in connection with the incident and issued a press release about it.

At the time, a Chevron representative disputed the agency's findings. Company spokeswoman Leah Casey said then that the amount of hydrogen sulfide that was released was small and the distance between the refinery and San Francisco across the bay was too long.

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It's unclear if all of these previous violations announced in May were addressed in the deal announced Monday.

Late Monday, another Chevron representative said the company "cooperated fully" with the air district in reaching the settlement.

"Chevron takes environmental protections seriously and has taken preventative measures to avoid similar situations from occurring in the future," company spokesman Brian Hubinger said.

In the years since Chevron committed the violations at the center of its settlement with the district, its Richmond facility has had more flaring incidents than any other Bay Area refinery.

In 2018, the facility experienced nine flaring operations, breaking a 12-year record. The next year, Chevron had 38 such incidents, more than the region's four other refineries combined.

In the last several months, problems at the refinery have led to significant flaring operations that have gained wide attention, including one in August that sent black smoke in the air that could be seen across the central Bay Area, and another one caused by a power outage on Nov. 2.

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A local environmentalist who's kept tabs on the Richmond refinery's problems described the latest settlement as extremely small for a multinational oil company like Chevron.

"Our air regulators don't seem to understand they can't protect public health and safety with fines that are just miniscule to a giant oil company," Hollin Kretzmann, an Oakland-based attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, said in an email Monday.

"Another light slap on the wrist for one of the world's worst polluters is not going to change its behavior. These refiners will keep polluting our air until regulators get serious about prioritizing our safety over oil company profits," Kretzmann said.

The air district's press release included a statement from the agency's top official similar to ones in previous refinery settlement announcements.

"The Air District has the most stringent air quality regulations in the nation to safeguard public health and air quality in the region," BAAQMD Executive Officer Jack Broadbent said.

"This settlement is part of an ongoing process to ensure that Chevron is held accountable and follows all state, local and federal permit conditions to protect the health of those in neighboring communities," Broadbent said.

The deal covers several other incidents, including ones in which the Richmond refinery emitted sulfur dioxide and other emissions that exceeded regulatory limits. The air district said all of the violations connected to the agreement have been corrected.

Several politicians and environmentalists have pushed to increase penalties for refineries that violate air quality regulations. In 2018, state Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, proposed tripling fines. But his bill was dropped before it reached a committee vote after the oil industry and others raised opposition to it.

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