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The release of flammable vapor leads to a fire at the Chevron refinery in Richmond, Calif., on Monday, Aug. 6, 2012. (Courtesy of the Chemical Safety Board)

If Richmond residents end up displeased with the final report on the Chevron refinery fire, it won't be for lack of investigations. Four agencies have had investigative teams on site since the Aug. 6 blaze was extinguished, as they explained at a public briefing Monday.

The presence of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board reflects the seriousness of the undertaking. The CSB pokes its nose into industrial accidents only when the warning light reads "urgent!" The agency screens and grades "incidents" for severity before intervening.

Investigator Dan Tillema explained that this examination will be broad-based and thorough -- perhaps taking as long as 18 months -- with critical questions about Chevron's management systems, mechanical designs, safety incentives and performance record. Only after evaluating the corporate culture will the investigation pinpoint specific failings.

He said his group already has interviewed 70 employees and obtained 20,000 pages of documents. That's for starters. For Chevron, it must feel like the "CSI" team just walked in the door.

Neither can the refinery be thrilled to find the Environmental Protection Agency pitching a tent at its steps. The EPA enforces the Clean Air Act with penalties that begin with dollar signs. ("If Chevron violated the law," said assistant director Dan Meer, "we will prosecute to the fullest extent of the law.")

That's not to overlook the state Division of Occupational Safety and Health and the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, both of which can assess fines. Watching to ensure compliance with the city's Industrial Safety Ordinance is Contra Costa County's environmental health and hazardous materials chief, Randy Sawyer.


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If all the parties can keep from stepping on one another's tails, the hunt for information could be the most exhaustive since the audit of Al Capone's tax returns.

Whether all this will quell residents' anger is another question. What emerged from Monday's session at a packed City Council chamber were large helpings of frustration and distrust. When asked about the crowd, Tillema described it as "the most passionate community I've been involved with."

The questions seemed to grow louder with each new speaker:

What kind of penalties will be assessed against Chevron? How do I get the soot off the plants in my garden? Why didn't the warning sirens work? Why wasn't there an automatic shutoff valve? Why was there no live monitoring of emissions? What's being done to prevent this from happening again?

Even Mayor Gayle McLaughlin had demands. She said Chevron should: 1) pay for independent tests on the effect of airborne pollutants on the soil, and 2) formulate emergency transportation plans for anyone stranded by interruptions to BART and AC Transit service during future incidents.

BAAQMD came in for the harshest criticism, with one woman describing it as a Chevron shill. State pollution standards for "acceptable emissions" also drew jeers.

The most enterprising perspective came from a man who said he read that Alaska residents get dividends from oil companies operating in their state.

"Chevron is very profitable," he said. "Can you do something for the people of Richmond? Maybe we can get some of that money to help us out. We're dying out here."

It may take more than a thorough investigation to satisfy him.

Contact Tom Barnidge at tbarnidge@bayareanewsgroup.com.