Wednesday, August 8, 2012
Monday's fire at the Chevron oil refinery in Richmond began with a hydrocarbon leak so small that the facility's emergency response team at first thought it posed little threat to the community, a company representative said Tuesday.
But even as the team discussed what to do next, the leak from the refinery's No. 4 Crude Unit suddenly swelled. The emergency response crew evacuated. The leak ignited and the fire that followed spewed black, noxious smoke across the East Bay and forced Richmond residents to flee indoors.
Now some union officials question whether refinery operators waited too long to try to stop the leak before it blew.
It's one of the questions that will be explored by regulatory experts who have sealed off the damaged unit pending an investigation into the latest fire to hit the 110-year-old refinery on Richmond's western edge. It is unclear exactly what steps Chevron took between discovery of the small leak, around 4:15 p.m., and the moment it ignited at 6:30 p.m.
The leak at first appeared to be no more than "20 drips per minute," said Mark Ayers, the refinery's chief of emergency services. It was located at a pipe that siphons hydrocarbons out of the crude unit to be processed into different kinds of fuel.