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AP NewsBreak: Refinery probe focuses on corrosion

Associated Press Modified: August 11, 2012 at 2:03 pm •  Published: August 11, 2012

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Federal investigators probing the cause of a massive Chevron oil refinery fire are focusing on possible corrosion in a decades-old pipe the company inspected late last year but did not replace.

Investigators with the U.S. Chemical Safety Board told The Associated Press on Saturday that the November inspection led Chevron to replace an old pipe connected to the one that failed Monday.

The fire exploded when a vapor cloud ignited, endangering more than a dozen workers in the immediate vicinity. The resulting blaze sent up thick, black smoke and caused thousands to seek medical attention for related health issues in one of the most serious U.S. refinery fires in recent years.

The Richmond refinery, located about 10 miles northeast of San Francisco, produces about 16 percent of California's daily gasoline supply.

Chevron said Saturday it too is seeking to understand why the accident occurred.

"We agree that this is a serious incident that warrants thorough investigation," said Sean Comey, a company spokesman. "We are cooperating with all regulatory agencies and are committed to better understanding the root cause of this incident."

The inspectors have not yet seen testing records for the pipe that failed, but given its age and the condition of pipes connected to it, they believe corrosion is a strong possible cause of its failure. Investigators said, in general, all pipes corrode over time.

The crude unit where the fire occurred is a key part of the refinery, helping to create a specialized blend of cleaner burning gasoline that satisfies air quality laws in California. On Saturday, the average price for a gallon of regular gas in California was $4.04, up from $3.86 cents Tuesday.

While high crude prices have driven prices up nationwide, the partial loss of production at Chevron's Richmond refinery has also had an effect on driving prices in the state even higher, analysts said.

The incident began Monday afternoon, when a small dripping leak was detected by refinery workers. When engineers responded to find the leak's cause, they removed insulation around the pipe.

"Due to the high temperature of the material in the tower, in excess of 600 degrees Fahrenheit, the gas-oil immediately formed a large flammable vapor cloud," chemical safety board investigators said in a statement.

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