8 Months After Chevron Oil Refinery Spill, Few Answers Surface About Cause

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A large oil slick on water off a shore lit by lights at the refinery there.
An oily sheen spreads across bay waters to Point Richmond after a pipeline leaked at Chevron's Richmond refinery on Feb. 9, 2021.  (San Francisco Baykeeper)

In the eight months since hundreds of gallons of fuel from Chevron's Richmond oil refinery spilled into the bay, local air regulators and the state's workplace safety agency have issued a handful of violation notices against the oil giant.

But neither Chevron nor the agencies investigating the Feb. 9 incident has provided details about exactly what caused a pipeline on the refinery's wharf to spill as many as 750 gallons of low-sulfur diesel fuel, creating a sheen that spread for several miles across the bay.

A top Richmond city official and a leading local environmental group say that lack of answers is unacceptable.

"It's taking so long," said Richmond Councilmember Claudia Jimenez. "They haven't even come out with any partial information."

Sejal Choksi-Chugh, executive director of San Francisco Baykeeper, says the slow pace in getting answers from Chevron is a tactic that the fossil-fuel industry has long used.

"Time and again, we've seen oil companies stall investigations into spills and limit information sharing so that public pressure will subside and everyone will forget about the incident," Choksi-Chugh said. "Unfortunately for the environment and public health, there's a critical window to learn from mistakes and prevent future oil spills, and sadly that window may be closing."

The Chevron spill led to a health advisory and the closure of a local beach.

Two months later, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District issued a public nuisance notice of violation against the company, which it posted on the agenda for its June board meeting.

District spokesperson Ralph Borrmann said the agency's investigation into the spill is ongoing.

In August, California's Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) issued a $315 citation against Chevron for failing to "develop, implement and maintain effective written procedures to ensure the ongoing integrity of process equipment." The company has appealed that penalty.

"The initial $315 citation is nonsense, just pennies to the multibillion-dollar corporation that doesn't mind paying to pollute," Choksi-Chugh said.

Among the multiple entities looking into the cause of the spill, only the U.S. Coast Guard has completed its investigation. The agency issued a notice of violation to a "responsible party," according to Coast Guard representative Lt. Stephanie Cardenas, who declined to provide more details on the agency's work.

Chevron has filed six follow-up reports with the county's hazardous materials program and none has offered any new insight into the cause of the pipeline break. The latest report, sent Aug. 12, says "it remains unclear" when the investigation will be completed.

Initially, Contra Costa County officials said they would hire a contractor to do an independent investigation of the spill. But they changed course months later, deciding to have the contractor review Chevron's probe of the incident along with the investigations conducted by state and federal agencies.

That change did not go over well with Councilmember Jimenez.

"We don't need a peer review. We need another set of eyes to give us the conclusions," she said. "It doesn't really seem independent. It doesn't build trust with the community."

County health officials have said that the best time to do an investigation is immediately after an incident.

"Since the process to hire a third-party consultant takes time, a good incident investigation is compromised," said Randy Sawyer, the county's deputy director of health services. "This is why it was decided to review the investigation done by Chevron [to] determine the accuracy of their investigation."

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In late August, the county signed a $95,000 contract with AcuTech Consulting Group, a company based in Virginia, which has worked with Chevron on several projects.

The firm could receive the refinery's root-cause analysis soon. Chevron representative Linsi Crain, along with Matt Kaufmann, the head of the county's hazardous materials program, both say the company is finalizing its findings.

Crain says the company's investigation was slowed, in part, by the necessity to get permits to cut the portion of broken pipe before it could be taken out of the water and inspected.

County health officials have said that if there are any gaps or questions that come from reviewing Chevron's findings, the county can still conduct its own investigation.

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife's Office of Spill Prevention and Response is conducting yet another investigation into the spill. The agency is looking into whether the conditions resulting in the spill may have been in violation of state laws, and agency spokesperson Eric Laughlin said once the probe is complete, the findings will be forwarded to the Contra Costa County District Attorney's Office.

A leading pipeline safety expert said it's not a surprise the investigations are taking so long.

"Pipeline failure investigations routinely take many months before they are completed and released," said Rebecca Craven, program director of Pipeline Safety Trust, a Washington state-based nonprofit.

"It's always frustrating for the public and for regulators and legislators who want to know if there needs to be changes made in the regulatory structure to prevent a similar incident in the future," Craven said. "The length of time is frustrating, but not unusual."

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The spill took place along the Richmond refinery's Long Wharf, which extends 4,000 feet into the bay from the Chevron complex.

Local air regulators have said the refinery was alerted to a sheen on the water by a member of the community. According to the agency's incident statement, the fuel was spurting out of a hole in the pipeline and was leaking for as long as 2 1/2 hours before the line was clamped shut.

Contra Costa officials issued a temporary advisory, warning residents with "respiratory sensitivities" in Richmond, North Richmond and San Pablo to stay indoors.

Cal/OSHA says when the spill was discovered, it immediately issued an order to halt use of the ruptured line until it was repaired. Investigators found a hole the size of a nickel on the line that appeared to be blown outward, according to the agency.

Cal/OSHA officials say they reviewed Chevron's testing data for all of the so-called "process lines" running to and from the refinery to the Richmond Long Wharf terminal. They say the Chevron test results detected no problems on any of those lines, including the one that ruptured.

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