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KCBS In Depth: Lack Of Monitoring Means Impact Of Chevron Refinery Fire Unknown

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The Richmond Chevron refinery fire as seen from San Francisco. (FoTo Taker/CBS)

The Richmond Chevron refinery fire as seen from San Francisco. (FoTo Taker/CBS)

RICHMOND (KCBS) – It could be a year, if not longer, before investigators from multiple agencies issue their findings on the Aug. 6 fire at the Chevron Refinery in Richmond.

The Contra Costa Health Services, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, the Contra Costa Sheriff’s Office, California Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board have all launched queries into the incident; a blaze that erupted in one of the refinery’s crude oil units.

The community has made it clear, however, that it has no intention of waiting idly until such reports are released. Rather, neighborhood activists are demanding answers – and immediate changes – to refinery practices.

“It was virtually unmeasured by Chevron or any government agency, what was emitted and what people were exposed to,” said Greg Karras, Senior Scientist at Communities for a Better Environment (CBE), an environmental health and justice non-profit.

Related: EPA Investigates Bypass Pipe At Chevron’s Richmond Refinery

“There’s a lot we know, before we talk about what we don’t know,” said Karras. “Uncontrolled combustion of petroleum oils, we know what comes out. Particulate matter, a whole range of toxic sulfur compounds, nitrogen compounds. Some heavy metals …”

“Anyone who saw that plume,” he warned, “knows that, you know, on the order of hundreds of tons of toxic material, a whole toxic soup was released.”

“The known health impacts of acute exposure to too much of the main chemicals we know were released are very consistent with what the hospitals are reporting and with what CBE’s community members were reporting in the moment. Asthma attacks, breathing difficulties, eye, nose, throat irritation, skin rashes, headaches, dry heaving. These may be the precursors to longer term effects all the way through cancer but at this point what we know is that some 15,000 people, plus, got sick from acute exposures and their symptoms are consistent with this toxic soup with chemicals, particulate matter was what was clearly released.”

In short, he cautions that the other shoe may not yet have dropped. Indeed, nobody can accurately predict all of the health consequences to workers and nearby residents, said Karras.

“When you see black smoke, that’s what it is. And it wasn’t measured, anywhere downwind of the refinery, in Richmond, that night.

“Before I came to CBE I worked for the Air Resources Board, when I was a student, in the monitoring division,” he explained. “And I can tell you that it was by design, it was political, that the monitoring was set up for the average across the region but not to measure incident impacts in communities.”

“So, it wasn’t there. The truth is that it’s not measured still. And it’s a long-term project, it will take years and many millions of dollars to get it right. Right now the community is the expert on what Chevron’s fire did to us.”

KCBS In Depth:

“Chevron takes full responsibility for the fire,” said Heather Kulp, Chevron Corp. external affairs manager. “Operating safely is one of our core values and we’re dedicated to learning from this investigation so we’re cooperating fully with all the investigating agencies that are currently running investigations here.”

She described Chevron’s approach in the wake of the incident as an open and honest one.

“We’re really very much engaged in a dialogue right now with our community about what they would like to see as part of the response,” said Kulp. “We’ve also been very transparent with what we know so we’ve released a 30-day report that we submitted to Contra Costa County, which is part of our regulations, but we’ve been handing that report out and really saying, right now this is sort of the collection of facts as we know them. And, we’ve committed, we have to continue to submit those 30-day reports to the county as we get new learnings and we’ll continue to share those learnings with the community.”

She expressed confidence in current monitoring practices.

“The Air District has a variety of monitors that are set up throughout the Bay Area. We also have air monitors located in many places around our facility. And, pre-dating the fire, as part of our commitment to the City of Richmond, we’ve also been engaged in talking to the three neighborhoods that most closely lie next to our facility and we’ve been working with them on a community air monitoring program which would feed real-time data to a public website.”

“This is a project we’ve been working very closely with the neighborhoods, with the City of Richmond on, and been talking a lot with the Air District and also the county on getting their experts to weigh in on helping interpret some of the data that will go on this public website so that folks can really understand what they’re seeing.”

At this point, though, the project is still in the planning stages. She declined to provide a specific date for its completion.

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

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