Contra Costa County

NuStar Workers Fled Tank Fire Without Activating Fire Suppression System

Firefighters who rushed to battle the raging fire at the NuStar tank farm in Crockett found the front gate locked, and the employees had scattered without activating the facility’s automated fire suppression system, NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit has learned.

“Clearly there was a problem here,” said Contra Costa County Supervisor John Gioia, who was briefed Thursday on the NuStar probe and company response by fire officials.

Based solely on the basic details of what fire officials told him, Gioia said the company clearly wasn’t prepared for the emergency, with management unable to answer key questions at the scene.

“Apparently the NuStar personnel that were on scene, couldn’t immediately identify what kind of product was in a particular tank,” he said, adding that such knowledge is critical for firefighters.

“The facility should know pretty immediately what was in that tank,” he said, “and that of course helps the firefighters in fighting that fire as safely as possible.”

Contra Costa County fire officials late Thursday confirmed the broad outlines of Gioia’s concerns related to the management’s lack of knowledge about what was in some of the tanks at the facility.

They also confirmed that the workers fled, leaving a locked gate, and failed to activate the automated fire suppression system on their way out. But they declined to go into further detail, citing the pending investigation.

Those questions come as federal court documents show the facility had a troubled history going back to before NuStar acquired it in 2004.

Federal prosecutors accused the company’s on-site manager of bypassing air pollution control equipment between 2003 and 2006.

The equipment traps smog-causing ozone vapors during truck loading, but the company bypassed that system and, federal authorities alleged, repeatedly lied about complying with air quality rules.

Shore Terminals, LLC, the NuStar subsidiary, paid a total of $2.5 million in fines and penalties in 2009.

NuStar told us Thursday that after it acquired Shore Terminals it “discovered operational infractions, which had been established under the previous ownership, which resulted in the false certifications.”

NuStar said it changed procedures, improved training and changed management.

NuStar released a statement Thursday addressing how its workers handled Tuesday's fire:

"While all our employees are very familiar with the products in our tanks, the combustion happened so quickly and so unexpectedly, that there was some initial confusion about which tanks were impacted.

"Similarly, our employees are well-trained on the protocol of how and when to activate our fire suppression equipment. Unfortunately, in this case, given the speed, intensity and particular location of this combustion, the suppression equipment for that part of the facility was inaccessible until first responders arrived to cool the area down with water.

"Once we confirmed the two tanks involved, we were able to identify the product and the volume immediately and we notified firefighting personnel accordingly."

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