RICHMOND, Calif. (AP) — Federal investigators looking into last year's fire at Chevron's Richmond refinery said Friday that the incident shows stronger state oversight of oil refineries is needed.
The U.S. Chemical Safety Board, the agency investigating the cause of the Aug. 6 fire, said California workplace safety and the other myriad regulatory agencies charged with refinery oversight lacked the staff and proper training. The board said more rigorous state regulations are needed.
"This patchwork system of regulation has serious challenges," Dan Tillema, the board's lead investigator, wrote in testimony prepared for a public meeting in Richmond on Friday.
"The California process safety regulatory system lacked sufficient well-trained, technically competent staff and also lacked more rigorous regulatory requirements to require Chevron to reduce safety risk."
Tillema said California's Division of Occupational Safety and Health conducted only three planned "process safety" inspections of the facility over the six years prior to the fire, and issued no citations.
Cal-OSHA issued citations after the fire.
The blaze, caused by a leak in a 1970s-era pipe that had corroded, sent a large plume of black smoke high into the air. Thousands of nearby residents poured into hospitals complaining of eye irritation and problems breathing.
The board said there is nothing in the current regulations that require oil refinery operators to perform periodic corrosion reviews, giving regulators no legal footing to force companies to inspect and replace aged equipment.
In addition, the board said Cal-OSHA needs more, better-trained staff to be effective.
"Cal-OSHA would benefit from greater process safety staffing with expanded technical qualifications," Tillema wrote.
Chevron had performed internal reviews of its pipe system, which resulted in a 2009 memo calling for a comprehensive inspection to ensure the pipes weren't corroding to dangerous levels.
"This (recommendation) was not implemented by the Chevron Richmond Refinery, and neither Contra Costa (County inspectors) nor Cal-OSHA was aware of this memo," Tillema wrote.
Chevron did not return a request for comment.
Erika Monterroza, a spokeswoman for Cal-OSHA said the agency is reviewing the board's findings.
"As for this incident, we issued 25 citations, 23 of them for serious and willful violations with penalties of nearly $1 million, demonstrating that we take our enforcement obligations seriously," Monterroza said.
Cal-OSHA on Friday approved Chevron's request to restart production in the crude unit destroyed in the fire.
Chevron has said it plans to resume operations by the end of June.