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Kory Judd, the new general manager of Chevron's refinery in Richmond, Calif., poses for a photograph at the plant, Thursday, June 20, 2013. Judd succeeds Nigel Hearne, who will be taking another leadership position with the corporation. (D. Ross Cameron/Bay Area News Group)

RICHMOND -- Kory Judd has no illusions about taking the helm of a massive, aging oil refinery besieged by critics and government investigators after last year's crippling fire.

He uses the word "daunting" to describe the task that awaits him as general manager of Chevron's Richmond refinery, the first such role he has held in his 27 years with the oil giant. But the chemical engineer has always loved fixing things, and there's plenty on the to-do list in Richmond: implementing new safety and maintenance safeguards to prevent a repeat of the Aug. 6 blaze that shut down one of the West Coast's key crude units for months and spurred 15,000 people to seek medical treatment; restarting a long-sought refinery modernization project that stalled in court four years ago; and nurturing the refinery's complicated, and often-polarizing, relationship with the Richmond community, which was further frayed by the fire.

"I'm from a world where you worked with your hands; you fixed things," Judd said, hearkening to his childhood in the tiny coal-mining town of Price, Utah. "If you're a chemical engineer and you have spent that time honing your skills, there is really nothing better than a refinery. It blends the different disciplines together. It's a good place to go if you like the hobby."

Hired by Chevron in 1986 after graduating from the University of Utah, Judd, 53, has spent nearly three decades mastering the intricacies of the firm's refinery operations across the nation. He lacks the MBA credentials of his immediate predecessors and is more at ease within the world of advanced metallurgy than the glare of local politics, where the refinery's actions are always a source of spirited debate.

But Judd will need more than technical expertise to navigate the myriad challenges that await him in Richmond, where he started his career. It would have been daunting enough even before the Aug. 6 fire that resulted in intense scrutiny -- and criticism -- from investigators with the U.S. Chemical Safety Board and the state Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA), which issued a record fine.

"You can't deny the fact that it brings tremendous complexity," Judd said of the investigations. "Multiple outside agencies have been here, taking a thorough look ... and we have probably seen as much scrutiny internal as external. The challenges are great, but so are the opportunities to improve."

When Chevron announced June 5 its replacement for General Manager Nigel Hearne, Judd was something of a mystery, having worked largely out of the public spotlight during a Chevron career that has included seven site transfers. He plans to lean heavily on those around him as he adjusts to his new role.

"The fortunate thing is I am not on an island," Judd said. "There is an operations manager (Matt Brown) with all the experience I have, and in the community I have (staff members) who are excellent. But I try to bring perspectives, to set the boundaries."

Critics have portrayed the refinery general manager as little more than a puppet dancing on the strings of corporate decision makers. Judd brushes those notions aside. "There is a lot of deference paid to refinery general manager," Judd said. "It's a role of leadership and responsibility; my bosses listen very closely to a refinery GM."

During a wide-ranging interview last week in the general manager's office that is not yet his -- pictures of Hearne's children still adorn the desk -- Judd reflected on the challenges, responsibilities and power that come with his new job.

"Modernization of our refinery," Judd said when asked to lay out his priorities. "Our sights are set on a big project that we think makes a lot of sense, lowers our emissions, uses new technology and invests a lot of money and creates a lot of jobs in the community."

Chevron first proposed modernizing the century-old refinery in 2005, but a legal battle with environmentalists ensued and the project was halted by a state court in 2009. A revised application is before the city.

Judd quickly added that he wants to increase the amount of volunteering by Chevron's more than 2,000 employees and contractors in Richmond, a goal also declared by Hearne, and to increase local hiring of Richmond residents by 50 percent over the next five years.

But Judd doesn't duck the criticism from the fire. Both the Chemical Safety Board and Cal/OSHA determined the refinery was guilty of a slew of safety violations that included failing to replace the corroded pipe responsible for the fire. And Judd puts a positive spin on any tension that has existed between the company and investigating agencies, saying it results in "thoughtful discussion."

"The Chemical Safety Board came in and took a hard look, and we are going to make our business better."

While he's eager for the refinery and its workers to play a visible role in the broader community, Judd wants the plant itself to operate with a low profile.

"The only way to make (the anger from the fire) go away is to be a responsible, quiet, out-of-sight operator for a period to earn that respect. ... We have greatly retooled our inspection processes and are changing the way we look at damage mechanisms. We look at how things rust, how things get old."

Judd also suggests he will be around for a while, which would be a departure from the relatively short tenures of recent general managers, including Hearne, who lasted fewer than two years.

"It's hard to imagine that in, say, two years I would be ready to do something different," he said.

How he will fare atop a 245,000-barrel-a-day refinery in a town increasingly hostile to its presence remains to be seen. Councilman Nat Bates, a staunch Chevron supporter, said he had a long meeting with Judd and praised him as "sincere and capable."

Jim McMillan, a councilman in the 1980s and '90s, said that in his day relations between the city and the refinery were buoyed by personable general managers. He said Judd's non-MBA pedigree may be a good thing.

"The refinery management is much more corporate now than in the past, and the general manager gets shifted in and out from wherever and has little relation to the community," McMillan said. "The guys who ran it before may have been tough and gruff, but that was OK, this is a tough town."

Contact Robert Rogers at 510-262-2726 or rrogers@bayareanewsgroup.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/roberthorgers.

Kory judd
Title: General manager of Chevron's Richmond refinery
Age: 53
Family: Married, five children
Experience: 27 years with Chevron
Education: Bachelor's degree in chemical engineering, University of Utah
Quote: "The industry and community have become much more sensitive to incidents, and rightly so. Zero (incidents) is attainable."