US EPA cites Chevron for environmental violations from 2012 fire

HOUSTON Tue Dec 17, 2013 8:20pm EST

A lit sign at Chevron's oil refinery in Richmond, California is seen through a window after a large fire erupted earlier in the evening on August 6, 2012. REUTERS/Susana Bates

A lit sign at Chevron's oil refinery in Richmond, California is seen through a window after a large fire erupted earlier in the evening on August 6, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Susana Bates

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HOUSTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday notified Chevron Corp. that it found dozens of failures to comply with federal environmental laws in an investigation stemming from a 2012 fire at the company's Richmond, California, refinery, according to documents provided by EPA.

No workers were injured in the fire, but in the days following, 15,000 San Francisco Bay area residents sought treatment for respiratory irritation due to the smoke plume.

The agency said it found 49 failures by Chevron to effectively operate a risk management plan for the refinery, where a pipe ruptured on a crude distillation unit on August 6 2012, igniting a massive blaze and sending a huge plume of black smoke and particulates over the San Francisco Bay area.

"These violations increased the probability of failure of (the pipe) and the risk that such a failure would have significant consequences," said EPA Regional Director Jared Blumenfeld in a letter sent to the refinery on Tuesday.

A Chevron spokeswoman said on Tuesday the company was reviewing EPA's letter and list of violations.

"We are committed to work with EPA and the other agencies as they completed their investigations into the August 2012 incident," said Chevron spokeswoman Melissa Ritchie in a statement.

The letter and violations issued to Chevron is the first action by EPA after completing its probe of the 2012 blaze, Blumenfeld wrote in the letter to Chevron. The company has 30 days to reply and explain its plans to correct the violations.

If Chevron fails to correct the failures, EPA could ask a federal court to fine the company $37,500 per violation per day. Blumenfeld did not say what penalties Chevron may ultimately face.

EPA also found 13 failures to report releases from the refinery in 2010, 2012 and 2013 to appropriate regulators in compliance with the law.

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board has said the pipe on the crude distillation unit had become dangerously thin due to corrosion from sulfur in crude oil in the years before the August 6, 2012 explosion.

The board, which investigates chemical explosion, found Chevron refinery managers had several opportunities over several years to replace the pipe prior to its failure.

The blast led to the shutdown of the CDU, which does the primary refining of crude oil coming into the refinery and provides feed for all other units, for nine months, cutting gasoline production from the 245,000 bpd plant by up to 50 percent.

In January, California's Occupational Safety and Health Division issued nearly $1 million in fines to Chevron due to the blaze.

In August, Chevron agreed to pay $2 million in fines and restitution after pleading no contest to six misdemeanor violations of state law.

The company faces lawsuits by the City of Richmond and hundreds of area residents due to the fire.

In addition to cost of repairs to the CDU, the refinery has been inspecting and replacing pipe at the refinery since the blaze.

"We provided approximately $10 million to affected community members and local government agencies in Richmond and West Contra Costa County for medical and response-related costs," Ritchie said.

(Editing by Bob Burgdorfer)

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