The enormous fire that engulfed part of the Chevron refinery in Richmond this week should refocus attention on the need to modernize this plant, one of the oldest refineries in the country. First, however, fire officials and regulators must determine the cause of the blaze and whether pre-emptive measures could have prevented it.
The toxic cloud generated by the fire forced hundreds of Bay Area residents to first take refuge in their homes and then flood local hospitals with complaints of breathing difficulties, stinging eyes, skin irritations and vomiting. It's estimated that an astonishing 4,500 people sought medical help.
The small leak was discovered at 4:15 p.m. Monday. The fire ignited at 6:30, raising questions about what plant emergency officials did during those crucial intervening two hours. An official with the United Steelworkers union, which represents workers at the plant, told the San Francisco Chronicle that plant operators should have immediately shut down the No. 4 Crude Unit, the source of the leak, but that they instead looked for cost-effective ways to keep it running.
Chevron officials have said that the initial leak was small and posed no obvious danger. Clearly that assessment was wrong.
The fire sent a plume of toxic smoke miles into the air, where it dispersed widely. Toxic air contaminants above federal safety levels were detected in Richmond. Fortunately, no one was killed or seriously hurt, but the fire should serve as a warning.
Built in 1902, the refinery has been the site of serious mishaps in the past, including explosions and fires. Bay Area regulators have cited Chevron 93 times in the past five years for air rule violations.
For years, Chevron has been seeking permission to upgrade, expand and modernize the facility. Residents and environmental groups have blocked those efforts, arguing successfully in court that the company's environmental impact report failed to disclose that operators intended to process a denser, dirtier crude than had previously been processed at Richmond one likely to spew even more toxic emissions into poor neighborhoods.
Monday's blaze, and a smaller one on Wednesday that was quickly extinguished, curtailed some operations at the plant, causing an immediate spike in the price of gas in California of between 10 cents and 35 cents per gallon that is likely to go higher.
Coming in the midst of the summer driving season, the increase will tighten the squeeze on state residents already struggling financially and will slow California's still fragile economic recovery.
Even those who sued to prevent Chevron from expanding its Richmond refinery have said they do not want to shut it down. It is a vital component of the state's industrial infrastructure, accounting for 15 percent of the state's gasoline supply and a source of good jobs in a struggling community.
Chevron's failure to work with its neighbors on a way to modernize the plant without increasing emissions is hurting consumers and costing jobs for workers needed to modernize the plant. But even worse, it is threatening the safety of people who live in the shadow of this major refinery. That cannot be allowed to continue.