Chevron Says It Failed to Detect Pipeline Corrosion That Led to Bay Fuel Spill

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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)

Chevron says inspections at its Richmond refinery failed to detect corrosion on a pipeline that leaked hundreds of gallons of diesel fuel into the bay last February, a disclosure that one local official says shows the oil company's overall maintenance practices are inadequate to keep the oil-processing facility and the surrounding community safe.

Chevron briefly discussed the causes of the Feb. 9 leak in a three-page report delivered Wednesday to Contra Costa County Health Services' Hazardous Materials Program.

The document confirms previous accounts from state and local agencies that a tiny hole in a pipeline on the refinery's Long Wharf allowed about 800 gallons of diesel fuel mixed with water to spill into the surrounding waters. The spill spread for several miles along the Richmond shoreline and forced the closure of Keller Beach at the nearby Miller/Knox Regional Shoreline.

The spill came to light when a member of the public alerted a Chevron worker to the material on the water.

The report says a cement-lined carbon steel pipe — a line used intermittently to carry ballast water or refined fuel between tankers docked at the wharf and the refinery complex — failed due to internal corrosion.

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That corrosion developed over time but went undetected, the report says, because maintenance of the pipeline "did not include inspection techniques that were adequate for detecting localized corrosion in cement-lined pipe."

The report noted several other deficiencies in refinery practices as well, including incomplete record-keeping for previous leak incidents. The document also comments that had the pipeline corrosion been discovered earlier, the February incident would not have been so serious.

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The report outlines a series of steps Chevron plans to take over the next year to avoid a repeat of the incident. Those measures include reviewing inspection protocols for the affected pipeline, considering new leak detection technology, and further training for employees who work at the wharf facility to improve the response to future incidents.

Richmond City Councilmember Claudia Jimenez said in an interview that the report shows the February spill was preventable and that Chevron is failing in its responsibility to run a safe refinery.

"The thing for me and for many members of the community is the question about how well maintained the infrastructure at Chevron's facility is," Jimenez said. "And what this is showing is that it's not well maintained."

Jimenez also repeated criticism she and others have recently directed at Chevron for taking so long to disclose what happened on the Long Wharf.

"The fact that it took so many months for Chevron to release this information is outrageous," she said.

Sejal Choksi-Chugh, executive director of San Francisco Baykeeper, said Chevron's slow pace in releasing information is an oil industry tactic designed to escape close scrutiny of incidents like the February spill.

"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.

Chevron's Wednesday report was required under Richmond's Industrial Safety Ordinance. The law requires Chevron to pay for a third-party review of the company's incident investigation. That review, in turn, is to go before a panel of local residents, city and county officials and a labor representative from the refinery.

A spokesperson for Contra Costa Health Services said the county could initiate enforcement action against the company once those reviews are complete.