Investigators are looking at how a small, seemingly insignificant leak at one of the biggest oil refineries in the United States quickly turned into an intense fire that sent acrid black smoke into the sky and hundreds of people around the San Francisco Bay to hospitals with health complaints.
Outraged politicians, residents and community groups have criticized the company’s response as too slow, marking the latest conflict between Chevron and residents of Richmond, the low-income community where the company’s refinery is based.
The leak started as a drip at about 4:15 p.m. Monday, officials said. Chevron — which is required to “immediately” notify the public of any gas leak, fire or oil spill, according to California law — did not consider it an immediate danger to residents nearby.
“At that point in time, there really wasn’t anything we could advise the community to do,” said Mark Ayers, the refinery’s fire chief.
The company’s engineers began stripping away insulation on the leaky pipe to investigate the source, which released a vapor of a flammable substance similar to diesel. About two and a half hours later, a conflagration had officials scrambling to warn residents to stay inside.
Chevron officials notified Contra Costa County so it could activate its emergency warning system, said Randy Sawyer, director of the county’s health services agency.
“We are still trying to determine whether Chevron gave timely notification,” Sawyer said.
The refinery has been the target of complaints and lawsuits by residents of the community about 10 miles (16 kilometers) northwest of San Francisco. The area is home to five major oil refineries.
Emotions ran high during a Tuesday night community meeting, where hundreds of people heckled a panel of Chevron and local officials.
“I can assure you I have the utmost respect for this community,” Nigel Hearne, the general manager of the refinery, said. Police officers lined the stage as the speakers left.
Doctors Medical Center in San Pablo, a town near the refinery, said more than 300 people had sought help complaining of eye irritation and breathing problems. Kaiser’s Richmond Medical Center said it treated more than 350 people with respiratory concerns.
Carol Bluitt, who lives blocks from the refinery, said she was traumatized by the blaze that darkened the sky and smelled like burning rubber.
“You could clearly tell it there was something toxic in the air. My eyes were really, really red and running,” Bluitt said.
State officials said the region’s 27 air-monitoring stations detected increases in pollution, but that they decreased significantly once the fire was extinguished.
The blaze in the refinery’s No. 4 Crude Unit was contained in about five hours, Chevron said in a statement on its website. Three employees suffered minor injuries, according to the company.
A fire at the refinery in January 2007 injured two workers and spewed low levels of sulfur dioxide and other toxins into the air. County officials said then that it was not enough to harm the health of nearby residents. That fire shut down the refinery for most of that year’s first earnings quarter.
This disruption was expected to affect gasoline prices on the U.S. West Coast, which is particularly vulnerable to spikes in gasoline prices because it’s not well-connected to the refineries along the Gulf Coast, where most of America’s refining capacity is located, analysts say.
The Richmond refinery produces about 150,000 barrels of gasoline a day — or 16 percent of the region’s daily gasoline consumption of 963,000 barrels, said Tom Kloza, chief oil analyst at Oil Price Information Service.
Chevron spokesman Lloyd Avram said he did not know when the refinery could be restarted and declined to comment on the impact the shutdown might have on the gasoline market.
AP writers John Marshall and Garance Burke contributed from San Francisco. AP energy reporters Jonathan Fahey in New York and Sandy Shore in Denver also contributed to this report.