Safety and OSHA News

Lack of pipe inspection contributed to Chevron refinery fire

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) has released preliminary information about a fire that destroyed part of a Chevron oil refinery in Richmond, CA. There are two potential take-aways for companies:

1. Preventive maintenance is important, and 2. once you set your company safety standards, make sure you live by them.

The CSB says there’s no evidence Chevron conducted an inspection last year on the section of pipe that ruptured, leading to the fire.

The pipe had only 20% of its original wall thickness. The oil company’s own standards call for replacement of the pipe when it reaches 50% of original thickness.

Chevron inspected other pipe segments in November 2011. The company intended to replace the line that failed, but Chevron officials changed their minds, concluding the pipe had life remaining.

The CSB probe will try to determine what prompted company officials to violate their own safety rules.

A 52-inch long segment of pipe failed on Aug. 6. A fire ignited more than two hours after Chevron employees detected a slow leak in the line. The company cut refinery production slightly as it looked into the leak.

Just before the pipe gave way, a small flash fire erupted. After the rupture, a white cloud rose more than 1,000 feet into the air.

The leak got worse and the fire ignited, turning the white cloud black.

About 20 employees who were near the pipe got out just before they would have suffered potentially fatal injuries. More than 15,000 residents sought treatment at local hospitals for respiratory problems.

The CSB investigation is likely to take several more months to complete. While its investigations aren’t limited to oil production facilities, due to several incidents over the last few years, the oil industry has been a key focus for the agency.

The CSB is an independent federal agency charged with investigating industrial chemical accidents. It has no regulatory power, but it makes recommendations on how to prevent incidents.

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