Michael Board had just left a job site in Marin and was crossing the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge when he saw smoke.
“I looked over to my left and saw the plume starting,” he said. “It was pretty small at the time, from that angle.”
It was 6:30 p.m. on Aug. 6, 2012. The crude unit No. 4 at Chevron’s giant refinery was on fire.
An investigation by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board – the federal agency that probes industrial accidents – blamed Chevron managers’ decision to disregard warnings about the problem pipe. The agency also faulted the company for ordering workers to repair a corroded pipe while the plant was still running. As the workers tried to remove insulation, they jabbed the badly corroded pipe, releasing a vapor cloud.
The cloud ignited, and 20 workers barely escaped.
The fire sent a black cloud drifting over the Bay Area, loaded with heavy metals and toxic dioxins. Unaware of the danger, Board pulled over to watch before spending the night at his father-in-law’s house nearby.
“The next morning, lots of coughing and wheezing, a lot of fluid,” he said in a recent interview. “I went to the emergency room. They diagnosed me with chemical burns to my lungs.”
Five years and several surgeries later, Board, 54, still gets winded easily doing physical work and hasn’t been able to return to his old job – fixing and flipping houses.
“The worst is at night,” he said, “when you’re gasping for air, waking up in the middle of the night.”
Some 15,000 people went to local hospitals. Many have sued over the fire.
At the time, Garrett Brown was senior safety official with Cal/OSHA, the agency that oversees worker safety throughout the state. He said the investigation made clear that Chevron had ignored a decade of warnings about corrosion in their pipes before the fire. He was also concerned that workers seeking a repair shutdown were overridden by management.
“That pipe had gone from a quarter-inch thick to no thicker than a Coke can,” he said. “Management was willing to endanger the lives of Chevron employees, contractor employees and the community at large in order to save a few dollars by not shutting down a unit so it could be properly repaired and maintained. And that's a decision they make for pure corporate profit reasons.”
Chevron declined to talk with us on camera but pointed to new efforts to protect the refinery against the kind of corrosion that triggered the fire.
The company provided a statement saying in part, “At Chevron, everything we do begins with our fundamental commitment to safety.” And, “everyone at Chevron has both the right and responsibility to exercise 'stop-work authority' – they can stop any operation without any repercussions if they believe people or the environment are in danger.
Although he is mindful that profit has driven Chevron’s decisions at the refinery, Richmond Mayor Tom Butt said he is optimistic. “Through a combination of external regulation and internal commitment, Chevron is a much safer place than it was then,” he said, adding that he regularly meets with Chevron officials.
Even Brown, the former Cal/OSHA official who has been critical of the company, sees progress.
“I think actually the Chevron refinery saga turns out to be a happy story, turns out to be a good news story,” he said. “I think we're better prepared now in 2017 than we were in 2012 to prevent an accident like what happened at Chevron from taking place again.”
Much of that accident prevention will depend on Clyde Trombettas and the Cal/OSHA team of refinery safety inspectors he heads. After the fire, the agency was faulted for lax oversight of refineries. But today, Trombettas has the benefit of a larger staff, tougher regulations and unprecedented inspector access during shutdowns.
“It’s a significant change," he said of the access his inspectors now have during shutdowns at the state’s 15 refineries. “It’s a very powerful tool when we’re looking at what refineries are doing and, more importantly, what they’re not doing.”
But NBC Bay Area has learned that state worker safety inspectors recently found still more safety problems at the plant. In a report issued last year, regulators issued citations against the refinery for not heeding industry standards governing pressure relief valves. Those valves are designed to prevent dangerous pressure buildup in the refinery process.
The valves control the process in the refinery’s volatile Catalytic Cracking Unit, which uses extreme heat to break down crude oil into various fuels. Experts warn that misuse of those valves is the kind of lapse that can cause another fire.
Greg Karras, senior scientist at Communities for a Better Environment, points out yet another concern. The Chevron refinery has been shifting to a cheaper crude oil. It’s a kind of crude that has more sulfur, which is known to corrode pipes.
“There's something like a thousand miles of process piping in that refinery, and the vast majority of it hasn't been replaced,” said Karras. “So we're stuck with a refinery that's going to blow up again as a result. This is what it's like to live in the shadow of the smokestacks. You know that it's going to happen again; you don't know when."
Meanwhile, five years after the fire, Board is still paying for his own medical expenses. While Chevron told us it has honored justifiable medical costs, it says it is still challenging what it considers “illegitimate” claims. Board is left wondering why it is taking so long for his case to get to court.
“It’s just frustrating,” he said, “ that so little concern is given to people, how it changed their lives and what happened to them.”