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Analyzing Chevron's Power Outage and Refinery Flaring: A Comprehensive Overview

As some of you may already know, the Mayor’s Office is fortunate to have B.K. White as our Policy Director. As a 29-year operator at the Richmond Chevron refinery, as well as former union president of the United Steelworkers Local 5 (the union that represents many Chevron workers), B.K. brings an incredibly rare level of expertise to our city on the refinery, environmental safety, and labor issues. Given the huge role Chevron plays in our health and safety, I thought it was prudent to bring in someone who knows the facility well.

I asked him to assess the reports we’ve gotten since Monday’s flaring incident and share his thoughts with both me and Richmond residents. My hope is that we can have B.K. work with our Fire Department and other regional bodies to more accurately assess safety risks in our city and beyond.

Below is a summary of his assessment.

Analyzing Chevron's Power Outage and Refinery Flaring: A Comprehensive Overview

Understanding the Incident at Chevron's Refinery

On November 28, 2023, at approximately 3:30 pm, Richmond’s Chevron refinery experienced a significant, ongoing flaring event that could be seen from several cities away (I could see the smoke from Emeryville). Chevron has attributed this event to a power outage. But saying “power outage” is not the answer; it’s the question. We need to know why there was a power outage and what equipment failed that caused that power outage. Was it a relay failure? Old electrical lines? The ambiguity surrounding the source of this outage – whether it was internal or from external providers like PG&E – necessitates an in-depth investigation. The lack of clarity on this front is concerning, as understanding the root cause is crucial to prevent future occurrences. A mere acknowledgment of power loss without investigating its origin leaves a gap in ensuring such incidents don’t reoccur.

Timeline and Reporting Discrepancies

During last night’s city council meeting (presentation begins around 29 minutes in), City Council viewed a graphic of the flaring timeline. It indicated that flaring ceased at 2:03 AM, only to mention later that intermittent flaring ended at 8:06 AM.

I have included below what this timeline should visually look like. If the refinery is still flaring, it is still releasing pressure and stabilizing operations. A process upset isn’t over until the flaring is over. The incident is open until the flaring stops. It’s convenient for Chevron to break it up that way, but I don’t feel that it’s accurate information to provide to residents.

Questioning the Classification of the Incident

The categorization of the event as a Level 1 incident raises questions, especially since Chevron itself classified the incident before the arrival of CCC HazMat nearly two hours later. A Level 1 categorization bypasses the activation of the Community Warning System, which would immediately notify residents that a risk is present. Instead, with a Level 1 categorization, residents have to wait until Chevron issues a statement, elected officials hear about the event (usually from residents who are worried about what they’re seeing), or check Nixle. However, based on criteria from the Incident Notification Policy, the event we saw on Monday could arguably be classified as Level 2. I personally would like to know who made that categorization and why.

Air Monitoring and Environmental Impact

The majority of air monitors we rely on from BAAQMD are at the refinery's fenceline. My understanding is that Richmond Fire also does air monitoring use to the fenceline in such incidents. Given that emissions from flaring typically rise far above these ground monitors and then are dispersed by wind, there's a probable risk of hazardous substances traveling downwind into nearby neighborhoods, rather than falling straight down onto the fenceline area.

I have raised this issue of more air monitors being needed in residential neighborhoods before to regulatory agencies. The argument against it is that neighborhood monitors could detect emissions from other sources, so we wouldn’t know what pollution is actually from the refinery. This assessment has never made sense to me; certain compounds are unique to oil refining processes and can be identified through basic technology, like gas chromatography.

The Need for Stronger Oversight and Enforcement

The incident underscores the broader issue of insufficient oversight and enforcement in industrial operations. Industries, if left unchecked, may prioritize profit over safety, negatively impacting surrounding communities. A protected bird killed on federal land invites a fine of $1 million, while a Chevron worker killed on the job invites a fine of $7,500. The incentive for process safety management (PSM) is simply not there. Existing regulations and oversight mechanisms, such as the Richmond Industrial Safety Ordinance (RISO), OSHA PSM division, BAAQMD, and the EPA, need to be strengthened and actively enforced. These agencies, despite having extensive regulations on paper, often defer to Chevron’s self-reporting and self-regulation in a way that I find irresponsible and worrisome for Richmond’s safety.

We now know BAAQMD has now issued six violations against Chevron. We will see what sorts of fines BAAQMD can actually gather as a result of the incident.

VIDEO: Power outage causes flaring at Richmond Chevron refinery.

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