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Richmond Residents Irate Over Refinery Fire; Experts Say Smoke Not Harmful

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Smoke rises above the Chevron refinery in Richmond, August 6, 2012. (Brandon Knight)

Smoke rises above the Chevron refinery in Richmond, August 6, 2012. (Brandon Knight)

CBS SF Bay (con't)

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RICHMOND (CBS SF) — East Bay residents used a town hall meeting Tuesday to sound off at company executives over a massive fire at the Chevron refinery in Richmond on Monday night. Hundreds of residents sought medical treatment for respiratory problems, but experts concluded Tuesday it was “not a significant health concern.”

A two-hour meeting was held to address those concerns a day after the 3-alarm fire broke out at the refinery, burning through the night and sending about 950 area residents to local hospitals with related illnesses.

A panel including the refinery’s general manager, Contra Costa County Health leaders and Richmond’s city manager answered local residents’ questions, often over shouts and boos.

Several hundred residents packed Richmond’s Civic Center Auditorium for the meeting at 6 p.m. to demand answers about the fire that sent thick smoke, soot and other toxins into the air and prompted the county to issue a shelter-in-place, urging Richmond, North Richmond and San Pablo residents to stay inside their homes.

Nigel Hearne, the refinery’s manager, apologized to community members for the fire and the concern it caused.

“Hopefully this is seen as a first right step to doing the right thing in the community,” Hearne said. “Our goal is to be incident-free, and frankly, last night, we did not meet that expectation.”

KCBS’ Chris Filippi Reports:

Hearne said Chevron’s top priorities now are determining the root cause of the fire and ensuring safe access to the site for the refinery’s workers as well as preventing future incidents.

“If we can get to the root cause of the incident, we can prevent it from happening again,” he said.

Unsatisfied with Hearne’s comments, many meeting attendees tonight voiced their anger and fears over the fire’s impact on their short-term and long-term health and safety as well as Chevron and the county’s handling of the incident.

A couple dozen attendees carried signs with messages such as “People’s Health, Not Corporate Wealth” or “Chevron out of Richmond.” Some wore gas masks.

Several speakers who addressed Hearne and the rest of the panel Tuesday said they suffered irritation or illness as the refinery fire burned Monday night, from sore throats and shortness of breath to headaches.

“I saw a plume of smoke about 60 feet high … with dirty air for me to breathe,” said North Richmond resident the Rev. Kenneth Davis, of North Richmond Missionary Baptist Church. “How long can I hold my breath? What about our dogs, our cats, our horses—what about our children?”

In response to this and similar comments, Hearne repeatedly claimed responsibility for the fire and said Chevron is working to find out what caused it. He also noted that Chevron has set up a claims form process to cover health care expenses and any property damage caused by the fire and smoke. Residents are encouraged to call (866) 260-7881 for more information.

Inspectors with the Bay Area Air Quality Management District said test results received from a lab on Tuesday showed pollution levels during the incident were well below the federal health standards.

Meantime, Chevron officials on Tuesday blamed a minor hydrocarbon leak that later grew larger and created a “big vapor release” for igniting the fire in the refinery’s No. 4 crude unit that led to a shelter-in-place order for Richmond, North Richmond, San Pablo and other nearby communities for several hours.

Chevron’s head of emergency services, Mark Ayers, said the leak was first detected about 4:30 p.m. Monday, but county health officials weren’t notified because there were “no thoughts it would impact the community.”

As workers tried to stop leak, it grew larger – eventually forcing them to leave the area due to the safety risk, Ayers said. As the leak expanded, it created a “big vapor release and ignition.” What actually caused the leak remained under investigation on Tuesday.

Residents in the area claimed to hear explosions around the time the fire started, but Chevron has maintained there was no explosion.

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Contra Costa Health Services officials said about 18,800 calls went out over the agency’s automated emergency phone alert system to residents after they received notice of the blaze at 6:40 p.m., although some residents in the path of the smoke expressed concern that they received no notification.

The 3-alarm fire, battled by roughly 80 firefighters, was contained just before 11 p.m. and the shelter-in-place order was lifted shortly thereafter.

KCBS’ Chris Filippi Reports:

Throughout the day on Tuesday, officials said more fluid from the leak was safely being burned off to ensure there was no threat of another ignition. That small fire was described by authorities as being about the size of a basketball.

With the damage assessment and repairs to the refinery’s crude unit expected to take some time to complete, it remained completely shut down. The company declined to comment about the impact on the region’s gas prices, which spiked on Tuesday due to an anticipated production shortage.

Despite the mayor’s concerns, investigators with California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health have described Chevron’s emergency response as “excellent.”

A similar fire occurred at the refinery in 2007, but the company noted that it was located in a different processing unit than the one where the fire erupted on Monday.

(Copyright 2012 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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