Monday, August 6 was a bright, crystal-clear day in the San Francisco Bay Area — until a crude unit column at the massive Chevron oil refinery in Richmond caught fire and sent a massive plume of smoke spiraling over the region.
Photo by Drew Dellinger
The fire started around 6:15 p.m., according to this statement from Chevron. No workers were hurt in the incident.
Officials in Contra Costa County soon announced a “shelter-in-place” warning. Residents in Richmond and San Pablo received automated phone messages telling them to "Go inside. Close all windows and doors." County health officials have issued a level-3 community warning; that means the fire and smoke can cause eye, skin, nose and/or respiratory irritation. The shelter in place order has since been expanded to include El Cerrito and Kensington. The order also cautions residents to also “Close fireplace dampers and vents. And cover cracks around doors and windows with tape or damped towels.”
By 7 p.m. a huge cloud of black smoke could be seen as far away as San Francisco. Around that same time, BART shut down service to the Richmond and El Cerrito del Norte stations.
Richmond resident Sherman Dean told me that he was at a corner store in his neighborhood — the so-called Iron Triangle (named for the railroad tracks that define its boundaries) — when he noticed the cloud of smoke, which he said smelled like burned rubber. “It was a super huge cloud,” Dean told me over the phone. “Before I got to the house, which is only a couple of houses away, it was covering everything. It was scary in a way. In my house when you go upstairs, you can see the flames and everything and the big old cloud of smoke. And then the sky got dark, it was kind of scary.”
Dean, 24, told me “he practically grew up” in Richmond. He works at a local community gardening group called Urban Tilth located in the Richmond flats. He says it would be the perfect place to live — if it weren’t for the refinery. “It’s interesting to live in a place that’s so beautiful, with the best climate, and to have it so close to a death trap. It’s definitely crazy. It’s like having a big, I want to say, a bully, standing over you all the time. The refinery is up in the hills, over us.”
At the end of our conversation, he said: “In my opinion, it’s too bad there wasn’t a way for the whole refinery to burn down without it affecting us.”
Chevron’s Richmond refinery is an industrial behemoth. The 2,900-acre facility is the third largest oil refinery in California, processing 240,000 barrels of crude oil a day.
For years, groups like the West County Toxics Coalition and Communities for a Better Environment have complained that Chevron, which is the Richmond’s largest employer, has not done enough to respond to concerns about area pollution. The area has a large percentage of people-of-color, and earnings in some parts of Richmond are half of that in the rest of Contra Costa County, according to this report from Environmental Health News. To some, the concentration of poverty along the refinery fence line smacks of environmental racism.
Today’s fire is a reminder of the cost of our industrial infrastructure — and the risks posed by our oil dependence. Accidents happen: Similar incidents occurred at the Chevron’s Richmond plant in 2007 and 1999 and 1994. And they will inevitably happen again, if for no other reason than the imperatives of Murphy’s Law.
The question, as with any industrial accident like this, is whether the risks are worth the benefits.