Refinery Blast: Vapor Cloud Takes Off

Tuesday, December 18, 2012 @ 04:12 PM gHale


The pipe that failed at Chevron’s Richmond, CA, refinery in August had a low level of a key protective ingredient, leaving it vulnerable to corrosion caused by the sulfur and high temperatures in crude oil, the manager in charge of the facility said.

A surveillance video at the refinery, and released by the Chemical Safety Board (CSB), showed how a cloud of flammable vapor started to release and then burst into flames.

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“The cloud of flammable vapor released from an aging and thinning pipe could have had far worse consequences,” said CSB Chairperson Dr. Rafael Moure-Eraso during a September Richmond City Council meeting. “The August 6 accident at Chevron refinery in Richmond was a close call for the workers and the refinery’s neighboring residents.

The chemical composition of the decades-old, eight-inch pipe section was a contributing factor to the Aug. 6 blaze that sent thousands of people to the hospital with smoke-related complaints and knocked offline one of the nation’s largest refineries, said Nigel Hearne, general manager of Chevron Richmond during a community meeting back in September.

The company now thinks the pipe was more susceptible to thinning when exposed to high temperatures, a weakness that not fully understood or acted upon before the corroded conduit exploded, Hearne said at the community meeting.

The section that failed was part of a larger 200-foot-long pipe inspected in June at 19 points, Hearne said.

“Unfortunately, we did not inspect a 5-foot length,” he said.

Moure-Eraso said there is a widespread need for “refineries to strengthen their process safety and preventative maintenance programs so that problems are detected before dangerous releases of flammable or toxic products.”

The blaze destroyed an area of the refinery that produces a large amount of the gasoline that satisfies California’s clean-air regulations, which are the toughest in the nation. While all employees at the refinery were accounted for, and only one person ended up treated for minor burns, the fire knocked an important refinery unit offline, reducing the facility’s production and sent thousands of residents to hospitals with breathing and eye irritation complaints.



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