RICHMOND -- Investigators from multiple agencies were at Chevron's Richmond refinery Monday, poised to begin their examination into the circumstances surrounding the Aug. 6 fire that shut down a major refining unit, injured five workers and sent plumes of black smoke across East Bay communities.
But before inspectors can begin their investigation, structural engineers must establish that the burned-out area of crude unit No. 4 is safe and stable, said Randy Sawyer, director of Contra Costa County's hazardous materials program.
"They have to be sure it's safe for the investigators to do their on-site work," Sawyer said.
Sawyer said representatives from four agencies are at the 240,000-barrel-a-day refinery to investigate the cause of the fire in addition to Chevron's own investigators: The U.S. Chemical Safety Board, the state division of Occupational Safety and Health, Environmental Protection Agency and the Bay Area Air Quality Management District.
"We are cooperating fully with all investigators on-site," Chevron spokeswoman Melissa Ritchie said in an email Monday. "We are committed to moving this investigation forward so that we can take appropriate action to try to prevent something like this from happening again and make things right with the community."
Officials with the U.S. Chemical Safety Board did not respond to calls Monday. But Sawyer said there was no mystery as to where investigators would focus first in light of initial reports that the failure of an old 8-inch pipe triggered the fire.
"You want to know how that pipe failed," Sawyer said. "And to get to the root cause of the incident, you will have to look at management systems in place to determine whether there were failures in other areas."
The Aug. 6 fire occurred after workers discovered the old pipe -- which may have been in operation since the 1970s -- leaking at 20 drips a minute. They waited about two hours before deciding to remove the pipe's fiberglass insulation while the unit was still processing crude, according to federal investigators, causing the leak to accelerate and quickly ignite.
While five refinery workers were treated for minor injuries, more than a dozen narrowly escaped severe injuries or death in what the Chemical Safety Board has called a "near disaster" for refinery personnel.
Sawyer said the county last year had recommended that Richmond adopt a series of worker safety amendments that would protect refinery personnel but that the city had never passed the rules. The amendments, which Sawyer described as "regular security assessments and interface between workers and equipment," were first adopted in 2006.
According to the report county officials presented to Richmond's City Council in 2011, " ... without the city of Richmond's adoption of the county's 2006 amendment, both Chevron and General Chemical Richmond are not required to perform a Safety Culture Assessment or some of the expanded requirements in the amendment."
Sawyer said it was too early to suggest whether the tighter regulations could have prevented the accident.
Meanwhile, the number of people who have visited area hospitals complaining of symptoms related to the fire continues to climb. As of Monday morning, more than 8,000 people had visited either Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Richmond or Doctors Medical Center in San Pablo, said Dr. Wendel Brunner, public health director for Contra Costa County. No one has been admitted with injuries.
One week after the incident, public health officials generally praised the emergency response, with a caveat. Brunner said he was pleased Chevron had contacted public health officials less than 10 minutes after the fire broke out. But he said the one shortcoming in the emergency response was the automatic telephone calls to the surrounding community, a system designed to help alert people in the event of emergency. The phone-alert system is run by the county Sheriff's Office, Brunner said.
"It never works as well as we would like it, but on Monday night it worked particularly poorly," Brunner said, adding that it took more than three hours to make calls to the first 18,000 residents.
Sawyer said his department will help set up a public meeting for early September to share with residents and leaders the results of a 30-day report produced by the investigating agencies, a requirement under the county's industrial safety ordinance.
Richmond City Councilman Tom Butt said he was disturbed by the information about aging pipes that has come out in recent days but expects to learn much more as the investigations proceed.
"I think it's gonna take a long time before we have all the answers," Butt said.