The city of Richmond is taking legal action against Chevron.
The city filed a lawsuit in Contra Costa County Superior Court Friday morning over last year's refinery fire that sent a massive cloud of thick smoke up into the air.
"We don't want to see another toxic plume traveling across Richmond and the Bay Area … or to have children experience the trauma of such an incident again," Mayor Gayle McLaughlin said at a news conference at City Hall Friday morning.
The 39-page complaint accuses the oil company of "willful and conscious disregard of public safety." It alleges the explosion and blaze at the California Bay Area 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 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 purpose of the lawsuit is to hold them accountable for the harm and the economic impact this community in Richmond has suffered,” said Frank Pitre, the attorney representing Richmond.
The lawsuit asks for an additional punitive financial award "to ensure that an example is made" of Chevron to deter similar alleged conduct in the future.
The complaint also contends the refinery has had 14 incidents in which toxins were released into the air since 1989.
“After those 14 incidents, Chevron has repeatedly said ‘I'm sorry, this won't happen again.’ The purpose of this lawsuit is to prevent the 15th time of this happening again,” Pitre said.
Chevron calls the lawsuit meritless. Chevron spokeswoman Melissa Ritchie issued a statement Friday, saying, "The baseless allegations against Chevron USA are plainly intended to divert attention away from a dysfunctional city council.”
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.
Tarnel Abbott said she suffered respiratory distress for days following the fire. She told NBC Bay Area that she and her neighbors are tired of living in fear and grateful the city is finally standing up to Chevron.
“They're a bully,” Abbott said. “They're acting like a bully, they always have. They think they can do whatever they want in this town and people will just roll over and take it.”
Bay City News contributed to this report.