More Than 4,800 Sue Chevron After Refinery Fire

At least 23,000 health claims have been filed with Chevron, but it's unclear how many claims have been paid out

More than 4,800 more residents, workers, and visitors have joined a lawsuit stemming from an August explosion and fire at Chevron’s refinery in Richmond.

And Texas-based attorney, Tony Buzbee told NBC Bay Area on Wednesday that in the next two weeks, at least two more lawsuits should be filed total ling up to 20,000 plaintiffs overall. Ultimately, he said, the handful of lawsuits will be consolidated into one.

Buzbee's Houston firm, along with Oakland-based civil rights attorney John Burris, filed a new, 620-page complaint filed Tuesday in Contra Costa County Superior Court that is similar to a previous suit  filed earlier on behalf of nine plaintiffs, including three children.

Both lawsuits allege the refinery – with a history of at least 19 fires, spills and explosions since 1989 – forced thousands of people to seek hospital treatment for respiratory problems after a toxic plume from the refinery endangered public health. Chevron also is accused of delaying public health warnings around the refinery after the explosion. The suit seeks damages and injunctive relief, among other damages.

Kai Reed of Concord grew up in Richmond and was there on Aug. 6, the day of the fire. She told NBC Bay Area that she went to the emergency room for three consecutive days afterward, and that Chevron offered her $500, which she turned down. She is now a plaintiff in the lawsuit.

"It's not about the money," Reed said, adding that she wants the company to change its ways.

Chevron spokesman Sean Comey emailed a statement on Tuesday, stating:
"Because Chevron USA established a claims process to compensate community members for medical and property-loss claims following the...incident, we do not believe any lawsuits are necessary, and we will defend them vigorously." 

Comey added that Chevron "continues to cooperate fully with investigating agencies to understand root causes of the fire and learn from them, and we look forward to repairing damaged equipment and getting back to producing a full quantity of products on which California depends."

In a prior email, spokesman Derek Jansen told NBC Bay Area that 23,700 claims had been filed since the end of October. But he did not disclose how many claims had been paid out or for how much. Chevron opened two help centers after the fire and urged anyone with medical problems to file a claim. A spokeswoman had previously told NBC Bay Area that filing claims with the company wouldn't preclude them from suing.

The refinery fire erupted after a hydrocarbon leak was found on a crude unit pipe. The suit alleges that Chevron continued operating the crude unit despite the "obvious dangers" involved.

The plaintiffs, who range from babies to the elderly, report a wide range of health symptoms, including serious respiratory and gastrointestinal symptoms since the explosion and fire, according to the lawsuit. To date, a total of 4,872 area residents are suing Chevron. In the week after the fire, a health official testified to the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors that more than 9,000 people sought treatment for health problems stemming from the fire.

“Chevron compounded this public health threat by delaying the issuance of a county-wide warning until hours after discovering the leak," Burris said in a statement. "This warning came too late for the many in the public to avoid the toxic cloud. For others, the warning did not reach them at all. As a result, thousands of area residents, workers, and visitors were exposed to the toxic plume emanating from the refinery.”

Buzbee added: “This unit has a documented history of leaks, improper maintenance practices, and troublesome safety practices. Simply put, Chevron knew that there was a problem with their unit and failed to take timely action, jeopardizing the health and safety of the entire Bay Area.”

NBC Bay Area's Jodi Hernandez contributed to this report.

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