RICHMOND -- Chevron has come under heavy public criticism in the aftermath of the Aug. 6 refinery fire that injured five workers and was deemed a "near disaster" by federal investigators, but its employee safety record over the past decade has been consistently better than average, according to records from the state agency responsible for workplace safety.
Since 2002, the Chevron refinery and its Richmond offices were fined nine times by the state's Division of Occupational Safety and Health totaling $11,545, a minuscule amount for a global energy giant that reaped close to $27 billion in profit last year. The refinery was tagged with 15 violations and logged 11 complaints and six accidents that required attention from the agency during that period -- not including whatever findings may emerge from the most recent fire, which sent black smoke across the East Bay and more than 9,000 people to hospitals complaining of breathing problems.
In the most serious accidents, workers suffered severe burns and lost fingers.
"Based on the evidence, Chevron has a pretty good safety record," said Cal-OSHA spokesman Peter Melton. "In comparison with other Bay Area refineries, Chevron's facility scores well."
But that's not good enough for some industry observers, who contend that refiners place profits ahead of safety, resulting in plants saddled with aging equipment that inevitably poses dangers to workers and the surrounding community.
Antonia Juhasz, an energy industry analyst who has written several books on U.S. oil corporations, said Chevron has shown a consistent disregard for safety at its Richmond refinery despite billions in annual profits.
"This is the third time since 1999 that an old, corroded pipe has caused a massive fire or explosion," Juhasz said. "And smaller incidents are commonplace at the refinery. They are literally one of the wealthiest corporations the world has ever known and yet continue to run a shoddy refinery that could and should be safer and cleaner."
Melton said the fines were all levied on Chevron as "general" accidents, the lowest level of infraction. "Significant" infractions carry larger fines, but Chevron has had none of those since 2002.
Melton said that among five Bay Area refineries, Chevron's Richmond facility ranks just below Valero's refinery in Benicia, which has the best safety record.
Five fire emergency response workers employed by Chevron were treated for minor injuries Aug. 6, and the U.S. Chemical Safety Board said more than a dozen narrowly escaped severe injuries or death after being enveloped in a vapor cloud that ignited minutes later. Investigators have said the decision by Chevron in the fall to delay replacement of that pipe is a key line of inquiry.
Melton said the fines against Chevron represent both the relatively minor nature of the accidents and rigid fine guidelines.
"We don't go in there and say you're a big corporation with lots of money, so we charge you extra," Melton said. "The penalty structures are codified in state law."
Melton said there have been 13 "significant" citations to California companies in 2012, defined as penalties greater than $100,000, an average number at this point in a year.
The most serious violation at the Richmond refinery in the past 10 years occurred Oct. 17, 2010, when a 29-year-old Chevron employee suffered first-, second- and third-degree burns to his legs and arms, according to Cal-OSHA reports. The worker was cleaning part of the fluidized catalyst cracker unit when hot oil sprayed him.
Investigators found that Chevron had no standard operating procedures for performing this duty and slapped the company with three violations and $8,325 in fines.
Three months earlier, an operator mooring a ship at Chevron's wharf lost two fingers when they got caught in a winch. In August 2011, a geologist at the company's Richmond testing laboratory nearly had his finger amputated while cleaning a drill bit. Chevron received three violations for both accidents and fines totaling $1,200.
An incident similar to the Aug. 6 fire occurred Jan. 15, 2007, when a malfunctioning valve in the same crude-processing unit allowed sulfur-containing material into a pipe not meant for it, causing it to rupture and spray diesel 15 feet high, covering three workers. All three ran, but the fuel caught fire and a 45-year-old employee suffered second-degree burns to the back of his neck. Cal-OSHA fined the refinery $185.
The other accidents involved workers exposed to hydrocarbons and benzene.
A hydrocarbon leak triggered the Aug. 6 fire that closed the crude-processing unit and drove up gasoline prices throughout California.
The fire occurred after workers discovered an old pipe -- which may have been in operation since the 1970s -- leaking diesel oil. 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. The leak accelerated and formed a vapor cloud.
While Chemical Safety Board officials called it a "near disaster," Cal-OSHA sees it differently.
"Not a 'near disaster,'" said Cal-OSHA spokesman Dean Fryer. "A serious incident that was handled by well-trained employees."
But the fire underscores a larger issue of aging refinery facilities across the country, monitored by budget-starved government agencies, said Kim Nibarger, a refinery safety expert for the United Steelworkers union.
Nibarger said there have been 28 self-reported fires in U.S. refineries this year, on pace for the typical annual number of 40 to 45.
Chevron's fire was the 25th, with three more ¿elsewhere over the next 10 days.
"We're talking about nearly a fire per week for years; it's out of control," Nibarger said. "What the industry needs is a federal agency solely focused on refinery safety and operations."
Chevron's Richmond refinery is subject to some of the toughest regulations in the nation. Contra Costa County and the city of Richmond adopted industrial safety ordinances in 1999 and 2002, respectively, that include regular audits of refineries.
In 2006, the county expanded its ordinance with amendments that include regular "safety culture assessments," but Richmond never adopted the amendments. The refinery sits on city -- not county -- land.
"I don't know if adoption of the amendments would have averted the fire," said Randy Sawyer, Contra Costa County's chief environmental health and hazardous materials officer. "But I do know it would bring overall safety at the refinery up to a higher level."
Chevron spokeswoman Melissa Ritchie said, "Chevron is proud of its overall safety record and remains committed to working safely at all times and all locations. We are determined to learn the cause of this incident so that we can take appropriate action to try to prevent something like this from happening again."