Southern California environment news and trends

Chemical safety inspection stretches out, pipe stretched thin after Chevron refinery fire

Chemical Safety Board

A section of 8-inch pipe that failed and caused Chevron's Richmond refinery fire has gone to an independent lab for analysis.

Chemical Safety Board

The causes of the fire that decimated Chevron's Richmond refinery last month are emerging, investigators say, but remain hazy.

Tony Lee {fototaker}

The white vapor cloud emerged first from a pipe in the Chevron refinery; the black smoke that enveloped it billowed from the fire once it had been sparked, investigators say.


Federal regulators investigating last month’s fire at the Chevron refinery in Northern California say they’re still figuring out why it happened.

Seven investigators from the U.S. Chemical Safety Board descended on the site just days after the fire. After interviews with workers and supervisors, federal investigators have an idea of what happened at the Chevron plant. A fluid refineries call gas-oil leaked in the pipe connected to the crude oil distiller. Chevron workers were trying to fix it when, suddenly, the leak got worse:

“Witness testimony the Chemical Safety Board investigators collected indicates that a large number of workers were engulfed in the vapor cloud,” said CSB Team Lead Dan Tillema, P.E.  “These workers might have been killed or severely injured, had they not escaped the cloud as the release rate escalated and the cloud ignited, shortly thereafter.”

This week, chemical safety inspectors plan to update people in Richmond about what they’ve found so far. In recent weeks, officials made public photos of the vapor release that touched off the fire: it appeared as a white plume before it ignited into a black cloud.

Most recently, they’ve focused attention on the section of 8-inch pipe that failed during the fire. Regulators say that pipe appears to have thinned; they’ve sent it to a private independent lab for more testing.

This event has raised questions about oversight of the Richmond Chevron facility specifically. But the potential for problems that better oversight could have prevented implies a need for better scrutiny of southern California's refineries, too.

The US Chemical Safety Board says it’ll be months before answers surface about the incident’s cause to offer clues about preventing another fire. You can follow the investigation at its website. 

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