A hydrocarbon release and massive fire took place at a Chevron Refinery in Richmond, California on August 6, 2012. CSB and several other agencies promptly began investigations of the incident. CSB’s role is to seek the root cause of the release of hazardous chemicals and make recommendations to the industry to help prevent the same mistake from being made again. According to the agency’s statutory mandate, CSB may go so far as to recommend measures and propose corrective steps to other agencies, federal and local, in order to make working with chemicals as safe as possible. In what seems to be turning into a pattern for CSB, however, it has ignored the boundaries of its mandate, directly inserting itself into the decision-making process of how best to rebuild the Richmond Chevron facility.

In November 2012, in response to a letter sent to the Richmond City Council by CSB, the council passed a resolution urging Chevron to use the best technology available when rebuilding the damaged oil refinery. The CSB letter had questioned the type of materials that Chevron planned to use in the replacement of damaged parts and whether the selected materials were inherently safer than those used before the incident. Specifically, consistent with industry standards, Chevron plans to replace the pipe using a 9 percent chromium-steel alloy. CSB recommends using pipes that contain a higher percentage of chromium, such as stainless steel instead – a change that would dramatically increase the cost of replacing the pipe. Richmond’s resolution provides that if Chevron repairs, rebuilds or replaces equipment that sustained damage from the fire without it being vetted by the Council first, it does so at its own risk and the city reserves the right to disassemble the building and rebuild it based on new information.

The resolution was sharply criticized by industry veterans present at the Council meeting who pointed out that the Council simply does not know enough about refining to make these kinds of decisions. Richmond resident Don Gosney, for example, remarked “I spent more than 40 years as a pipefitter building petrochemical complexes and know a fair amount about metallurgy, but what I know is just the tip of the iceberg. Sometimes it takes a brave person to take a step back and admit that they’re clueless . . . Do we have any brave people that sit on the dais today?”

The resolution passed, leaving the City Council to sort out the information provided by Chevron’s experts and the recommendations made by CSB in determining whether Chevron has made the best decisions about how to rebuild. Just this month, the City Council further demonstrated CSB’s influence in its decision-making, passing a new resolution directing its staff to strengthen the city’s Industrial Safety Ordinance to align it with CSB recommendations calling on the city to join a multiagency regulatory body.

CSB’s investigation into the root cause of the incident is ongoing, but it expects to release a report detailing its findings to key stakeholders later this year.