Chevron Richmond Refinery Spill: As Crews Mop Up, Investigators Move In

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Frame grab from drone video shows oily sheen that spread across bay waters to Point Richmond after a pipeline began leaking at Chevron's Richmond refinery on Tuesday.  (San Francisco Baykeeper)

This post has been updated.

Federal, state and local agencies are continuing to investigate a spill from a wharf at Chevron's Richmond refinery that spread for several miles across San Francisco Bay, prompted a health advisory for nearby residents and led to the closure of a local beach.

A California Department of Fish and Wildlife spokesman said late Wednesday that up to 750 gallons of low sulfur diesel fuel mixed with water was released from a pipeline on the Chevron Long Wharf on Tuesday. The wharf extends 4,000 feet into the bay from the refinery complex.

In a brief incident report, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District said refinery officials were alerted to a sheen on the water at 2:32 p.m. that afternoon by someone from the local community. The substance was spurting from a quarter-inch hole in the pipeline and continued leaking for as long as two and a half hours before the line was clamped shut.

Contra Costa County officials issued a temporary advisory, warning residents of Richmond, North Richmond and San Pablo who have "respiratory sensitivities" to stay indoors. Health authorities lifted the advisory at 9 p.m. Tuesday.

Helicopter and drone video showed the sheen from the spill spread more than a mile along the Point Richmond shoreline by nightfall Tuesday. By Wednesday morning, responding agencies said the sheen was visible in the water from Point Molate to Brooks Island, a distance of about four miles.

The spill prompted East Bay Regional Park District to close Keller Beach at Point Richmond's Miller-Knox Regional Shoreline. The beach remained closed Wednesday afternoon.

Chevron, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife's Office of Spill Prevention and Response, the U.S. Coast Guard and Contra Costa County health officials are working to contain the spill.

A CDFW spokesman, Eric Laughlin, said crews have not yet observed any oiled wildlife. Laughlin said crews were trying to prevent oil from reaching some of the area's more ecologically sensitive sites, including at least one that houses eelgrass beds.

In a text message Wednesday evening, Laughlin said lab analysis and technical review of the substance in the bay determined it was a mix of diesel and water, and between 500 and 750 gallons had spilled.

In public statements Tuesday, Chevron described the oily liquid as "hydrocarbons." In its preliminary report to the state's hazardous materials spill database, the company said a "mixture of recovered oil and gasoline" was leaking from a pipeline on the refinery wharf at a rate of 5 gallons a minute.

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A later statement from the "unified command" of Chevron and government agencies said "the line in question is used to transport a variety of oil and products that are returned to the refinery for reprocessing."

"There was a failure," said Contra Costa County Supervisor John Gioia, whose district includes the refinery and surrounding neighborhoods, in an interview Wednesday. "It's extremely frustrating to see any spill into the bay. Understanding what caused this will be key to preventing this in the future."

Gioia said Chevron would most likely have to pay for the cleanup and Contra Costa County will require the company to perform a root cause analysis into the incident.

The county supervisor said the pipeline that ruptured was not under high pressure at the time it began leaking.

The diesel smelled bad. Though both the air district and county health authorities said ground-level monitors had picked up no elevated levels of air pollution, there were at least two public complaints about the spill's odor.

Gioia, who also sits on the board that oversees the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, said agency officials planned to brief members of the board about the spill next Wednesday.

The spill prompted Assemblymember Buffy Wicks, D-Oakland, to start working on a potential proposal to increase fines for certain refinery oil releases.

"It's infuriating. We cannot tolerate a single drop of oil in our bay," Wicks, who represents the area of the Chevron facility, said in an interview Wednesday afternoon.

After seeing the images of the spill, Wicks reached out to Gioia, other state legislators and state fish and wildlife officials. Those talks centered on ways lawmakers could deter future similar releases.

Wicks says a future proposal would build off of legislation signed by the governor last year, authored by Assemblymember Monique Limón, D-Santa Barbara, that increased fines for oil spills in state waters. She said it could be part of a series of proposed reforms focusing on energy and climate change coming from several state lawmakers.

"We need a holistic look at how the fossil fuel industry impacts our public health across the board. This is one piece of a larger conversation," Wicks said. "I'm ready for the fight."

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San Francisco Baykeeper, which has long advocated for stronger environmental protections for the bay, says Chevron's initial efforts to control the spill were weak.

"Chevron's initial response to contain the spill was pathetic," said Sejal Choksi-Chugh, the group's executive director.

She said spills like Tuesday's "add life-threatening exposure to toxic pollutants" for nearby residents.

"The people of Richmond already carry a disproportionate environmental burden," Choksi-Chugh said.

"The whole area smells like a gas station. And then there's the possibility of long-term, unknown damage to the bay itself, and to all the wildlife that depend on it," she said.