Chevron hit by lawsuit and mass march on anniversary of refinery blaze

This image of Chevron's deteriorated refinery pipe is from a Chemical Safety Board report; text added by the Guardian.

Almost exactly a year ago, an explosion and chemical fire at Chevron’s Richmond refinery sent a toxic plume of smoke billowing into the air. Visible for miles, the blaze sent 15,000 to the hospital with respiratory and other health problems.

On the eve of the anniversary of that disaster, Chevron faces mounting pressure from all sides as everyone from city officials to environmentalists continue to seek accountability.

On Aug. 2, Richmond city officials held a press conference to announce that the city is suing the multinational oil giant for damages related to the refinery fire. Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin joined other officials and representatives from the firm Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy in announcing the legal action, which was unanimously approved by City Council.

The complaint charges that Chevron’s failure to address safety issues at the plant is reflective of a deeper problem.

“In our view, the incident on Aug. 6, 2012 was not an isolated incident – it really is one that followed a period of dozens of prior incidents” of harmful chemical releases, attorney Frank Pitre told the Guardian. “These aren’t coincidences, they’re indicative of a problem of corporate culture at Chevron that ignores safety.”

Pitre added that the very year that Chevron’s refinery blaze occurred, it recorded record profits with the Securities and Exchange Commission exceeding $26 billion, and its top executives were paid around $100 million apiece. Additionally, the company recorded about $10 million in spending on political campaigns and lobbying. Meanwhile, Chevron’s spending on City Council races in Richmond alone hovers at around $1 million, according to local activists.

The lawyer refused to speculate on how much Richmond plans to seek in damages, but noted that the city had been impacted by factors like mounting an emergency response to the blaze as well as “intangibles,” like the effect the incident had on the comfortable use and enjoyment of public spaces. “You had people who had to run into their homes, as if they were imprisoned.”

Pitre also said that the suit aims to correct Chevron’s lax attitude toward safety, and to “send a very loud and clear message into the corporate board room that they have to change their behavior.”

That message is also coming from grassroots organizations.

On Saturday, Aug. 3 at 10 a.m., activists with a broad coalition of Bay Area environmental and labor organizations will converge in Richmond for a march and rally to call on Chevron to improve its safety practices.

The event, which is expected to draw quite a crowd, is part of’s national Summer Heat campaign, which seeks to foster climate change activism at the local level. The march will by led by Idle No More, an indigenous rights organization, and organizers have hinted that there will be some form of civil disobedience at the refinery.

Andres Soto, a Richmond organizer with the environmental justice organization Communities for a Better Environment, explained that the safety issues at the refinery stem from Chevron’s failure to address pipe corrosion, which is worsened by the practice of refining dirty crude oil with high sulfur content. Roughly 80 percent of the crude that is processed in Richmond originates in the Persian Gulf, Soto said, and contains high levels of sulfur.

Refining this type of crude oil can result in worse air pollution, and also makes it harder for the company to predict the degree of corrosion that will result from processing.

This graph is from a report issued by the Chemical Safety Board, showing the steadily increasing levels of sulfur content in the piping circuit that failed and caused the refinery blaze.

“The blast on Aug. 6, 2012 was caused by a failed carbon steel pipe,” Soto explained. A report issued by the federal Chemical and Safety Board contained urgent recommendations directing the company to use pipes that are more resistant to corrosion, Soto said, but not all of those recommendations have been implemented, even after the failed unit was brought back into service.

The safety board report went into great detail about just how bad things were allowed to get before the blast occurred. “The 52-inch component where the rupture occurred had experienced extreme thinning,” the safety board found. “The average wall thickness near the rupture location was approximately 40 percent thinner than a dime.” (A dime.)

Soto regards this level of deterioration as par for the course at Chevron. “It’s about a management culture that allows the equipment to fail,” he told the Guardian. “They’re just waiting until the pipes fail, and then they’re going to replace them.”