RICHMOND (CBS SF) – The city of Richmond sued Chevron Corp. in Contra Costa County Superior Court Friday for alleged negligence in last year’s massive refinery fire, accusing the oil company of “willful and conscious disregard of public safety.”
The lawsuit alleges the explosion and blaze at the Richmond refinery on Aug. 6, 2012, resulted from “years of neglect, lax oversight and corporate indifference to necessary safety inspection and repairs.”
The fire occurred after a leak in a corroded pipe in the refinery’s crude oil unit created a large cloud of hydrocarbon vapor that ignited in a fireball at about 6:30 p.m. that day.
The fire burned for several hours before being controlled and sent a huge plume of toxic black smoke over the area. More than 15,000 people were treated at hospitals for respiratory problems and other illnesses.
The lawsuit, authorized by the City Council last week, seeks financial compensation for economic damage to the city, including the costs of emergency response, firefighting, environmental cleanup, alleviating harm to public health, and loss of value in city property.
A jury would determine the amount of compensation at a trial.
The lawsuit also asks for an additional punitive financial award “to ensure that an example is made” of Chevron to deter similar alleged conduct in the future.
Chevron spokeswoman Melissa Ritchie said on Thursday, “We believe the decision to pursue such a suit is a waste of the city’s resources and yet another example of its failed leadership.”
The lawsuit accuses San Ramon-based Chevron of negligence in ignoring the danger of corrosion to carbon steel pipes from sulfur compounds in crude oil heated to high temperatures; using “woefully inadequate” inspection techniques; and failing to replace the pipes.
It also faults the company for failing to shut down the crude oil unit as soon as the leak was noticed at 3:48 p.m. and instead trying to repair the pipe while the unit continued to operate.
The unit was eventually shut down two hours and 40 minutes later, after the vapor cloud formed and several minutes before the explosion, according to the lawsuit.
In addition to negligence, the lawsuit makes six other legal claims.
One claim is for strict liability for an ultrahazardous activity, a legal doctrine under which a person who conducts an abnormally dangerous activity is responsible for harm it causes.
The lawsuit contends that maintaining the allegedly “old dangerous and shoddy refinery,” which was founded in 1902, in a densely populated area is an ultrahazardous activity.
The other claims are for creating continuing and permanent private nuisances on city property; creating continuing and permanent public nuisances on public property such as parks and streets; and trespass of chemical pollutants, soot and ash on city property.
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