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Environment & Science

Activists fear Richmond's refinery fire creates a hot potato among agencies

Black plumes of smoke erupt from a fire that is currently burning at a Chevron refinery near Richmond, CA.
Black plumes of smoke erupt from a fire that is currently burning at a Chevron refinery near Richmond, CA.

You’d think it would be pretty clear which part of our government was supposed to watch out for the possibility of disaster or accident, like the fire that burst from Chevron’s Richmond facility. But it’s not. Refineries are complicated places, with multiple units handling different parts of the artful science of processing crude oil it into what goes into your tank.  What the aftermath of the fire, and its finger pointing, are revealing is the unexpected relationships and power that regulation makes among government entities.

People who live near the Richmond refinery, and environmental organizers who watchdog it, accused the state’s Deprtment of Toxic Substance Control of “declin[ing] to seek authority over toxins produced by refineries.” Consumer advocate Liza Tucker with Consumer Watchdog argued that makes no sense, because at a refinery, “large-scale toxic releases can put far more residents in immediate danger than a toxic waste collector or recycler.” In a press release, Tucker continues:

State regulators make…evasion easy by passing the buck to other state and local agencies. And now what we’re seeing is regulation by crisis. Huge corporations just aren’t going to bother to be in safety compliance when they don’t fear real accountability.

The DTSC has now responded. Its spokesman, Jim Marxen, counters that the department does not have “omnibus” authority over a refinery, just hazardous waste activities and equipment.:

DTSC regulates a hazardous waste storage area at the refinery. This storage area is not within the active refinery, however; and was not near or affected by the fire. It was suggested by Consumer Watch that DTSC exercised discretion as to whether or not to exert regulatory control in this case. This characterization is inaccurate.

Marxen says DTSC is supporting the county.  Contra Costa county did take separate county-level steps toward regulating risk from the refinery.  And this IS the kind of thing that DTSC has said before. At the moment, it’s reminding me of the Carson Carousel neighborhood, where DTSC initially investigated a site, but asserted that the LA Regional Water Quality Control Board had primary jurisdiction over soil, soil vapor, and some groundwater contamination. And it reminds me of the attempt by the NRDC to hold railroads responsible via CERCLA for diesel soot. In this sense: our environmental laws frequently overlap. Sometimes you’ll see agencies negotiating out their authority. Sometimes you’ll see bare patches where nobody’s asserting any.

It’ll be a while yet, while the county runs a multi-agency investigation into the big fire. It’ll be interesting to watch how the county’s authority plays out here.