RICHMOND -- Federal, state and local agencies descended Wednesday on the site of Chevron's massive refinery fire, as questions deepened about whether the company could have prevented the accident by shutting down a crude unit that began leaking hours before the eruption of the blaze.

The lingering fire was finally extinguished Wednesday afternoon, but the company acknowledged that the damage is so severe the plant's ability to produce refined petroleum is limited -- a situation that is pushing up gas prices here and across the Western United States. No timetable has been set for repairs to be complete; in fact, even the investigations may not begin in earnest until Friday, after state officials declare the site safe.

At least five separate investigations, including one by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, will target a pipe that burst after two hours of monitored leaking, sparking the fire.

"Any time you lose containment of hydrocarbons, it's a critical situation," said Jeff Clark, field representative for United Steelworkers Local 5, which represents about 600 operators and mechanics at the Richmond plant. "And obviously from our point of view, the majority of the time, shutting down the unit is the safest thing to do."

The San Ramon-based oil giant said shutting down the plant is a difficult call.

"To do an unplanned shutdown of a plant is fairly dangerous," said Mark Ayers, the refinery's chief of emergency services. "While we were looking at our options, the leak got worse and the fire broke out."


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Meanwhile, Western Contra Costa residents raised a new round of questions on how to best coexist with their toxic neighbors. About 1,700 had visited county hospitals since Monday evening, said Pat Frost, director of Contra Costa's Emergency Medical Services. More than 1,000 residents filed claims against Chevron -- so many that the company's hotline was often busy.

Contra Costa had its own phone issues, as the county's hazardous materials chief said warning calls to area residents went out too slowly through the automatic phone system. Frost plans to beef up the system's capacity.

The leak

The Richmond No. 4 crude unit is the starting point of the refining process at Northern California's largest such facility, which processes up to 240,000 barrels of oil feedstock a day. In the processor, crude oil is heated to between 700 and 800 degrees, sometimes chemically treated, to create jet fuel, gasoline, diesel fuel and other byproducts.

The leak found Wednesday was in a pipe that separates the diesel-like mixture. Originally about 20 drips a minute, the leak suddenly "broke loose" as refinery employees attempted to take off the insulated aluminum shield around the pipe, said Randy Sawyer, Contra Costa County's chief environmental health and hazardous materials officer.

Crews evacuated, and the vapor caught fire so quickly that a Chevron fire truck was destroyed in the blaze.

Chevron officials pushed the notification button 10 minutes after the fire started, Sawyer said, automatically sounding sirens and alerting authorities. He said that was a reasonable response time.

The No. 4 crude unit was the site of a major 2007 Chevron fire, but Sawyer said the two incidents were in different areas.

Keeping production flowing is often a driving force in decision making at all refineries, Clark said.

"Any disruption in production affects profits," he said. "As far as the overall industry goes? Yeah, we have concerns that sometimes decisions are made to fix things without disrupting production."

Chevron representatives said Wednesday safety is top priority.

While a controlled burn smoldered Wednesday morning, a leak from a valve above the first fire dripped onto the burn and caused a small secondary fire near the upper valve, a Chevron spokesman said.

Chevron called Richmond firefighters, and they combined to extinguish the controlled burn and secondary fire. The company said there still was a risk a small fire could break out in the lines, so they are monitoring the site.

Environmentalists fume

Some critics said Chevron is part of an oil industry responsible for too many toxic releases, and that they happen because too much emphasis is placed on profit.

Firefighting crews continue to pour water onto a unit after a fire at a Chevron refinery on Tuesday, Aug. 7, 2012 in Richmond, Calif.(Aric Crabb/Staff)
Firefighting crews continue to pour water onto a unit after a fire at a Chevron refinery on Tuesday, Aug. 7, 2012 in Richmond, Calif. (Aric Crabb/Staff) ( ARIC CRABB )

Many previous refinery accidents around the country could have been prevented if plant operators had shut down production equipment rather than continue its operation while trying to fix a problem, critics said.

"If Chevron had shut down that unit when they first discovered the leak, the fire wouldn't have happened," said Denny Larson, executive director of the Global Community Monitor, an environmental watchdog group. "By not shutting down, Chevron had effectively lost control of that equipment when the fire started."

In 1993, Larson noted, the refinery in Rodeo then operated by Unocal had a leak of a chemical called catacarb for 16 days before public and regulatory complaints spurred a shutdown. Hundreds of people sought medical treatment for the pollution.

Community alert system

What was clear during Monday's fire was the inadequate automatic phone notification system, Sawyer said.

Calls went out to 18,800 residents alerting them to shelter in place, but it took from 6:39 p.m. until 11:58 p.m. for all the calls to go out.

"We need that to be two times or three times faster," Sawyer said.

The outside company that manages the automatic calls has a limited number of lines and limited system capacity, he said. Industrial companies in the county pay for the system.

Sawyer said more sirens should have sounded, as well.

"We were most concerned about people most around the refinery," he said. "Looking in hindsight, maybe we could have sounded more alarms ... that was my decision."

Meanwhile, Chevron's 24-hour, seven-day-a-week hotline intended to compensate community members for medical and property expenses incurred from the fire had capacity issues of its own, as many callers got busy signals.

"We have heard those complaints and are in the process of adding phone lines," said Heather Kulp, a Chevron spokeswoman. The claims number is 866-260-7881.

The company also plans to open a Richmond office to allow residents to file claims in person.

Contact Matthias Gafni at 925-952-5026. Follow him at Twitter.com/mgafni. Staff writer Daniel Jimenez contributed to this report.