(08-20) 21:39 PDT RICHMOND -- The chairman of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board toured the scene of
the Chevron refinery fire Monday and released photos of the gigantic vapor
cloud that loomed over Richmond before it caught fire.
Calling the accident a "close
call" that could have had an "extraordinarily bigger impact on the
community," Rafael Moure-Eraso said he hopes the agency's
investigation will offer lessons to the troubled industry.
"We have seen the refinery
sector is having lot of problems," he said.
Given the magnitude of the vapor
cloud, he said, the Aug. 6 accident at the Richmond refinery merited "a
serious and careful look."
A series of six pictures taken from
Pier 39 in San Francisco by a photographer documenting preparation for
America's Cup races showed the rapidly expanding white plume, which suddenly
turned partly black. Safety board officials said the exact size and contents of
the cloud are still being assessed but the cloud ballooned some 1,000 feet into
the air before it ignited and triggered a fire at the plant.
The fire spewed black smoke across
Richmond and nearby East Bay communities, sending 11,000 people to clinics and
hospitals seeking treatment.
Before the fire, a pipe leading from
a unit that processed oil into hydrocarbon products leaked for about two hours
while crews studied the situation and removed insulation from around the line.
Suddenly, a vapor plume swelled around the crew and an idling fire truck,
forcing more than 20 workers to flee for their lives.
It took two minutes for the dense
cloud to ignite, board officials said.
Moure-Eraso said he was concerned
that the operators did not replace the 8-inch diameter pipe when the plant was
shut down for maintenance last November, even though corrosion was found in an
adjacent 12-inch line, which carried the same diesel-grade material. The
12-inch line was replaced.
Last week, the federal agency
reached an agreement with state occupational safety investigators to preserve
evidence as the investigation proceeds. Moure-Eraso said he was eager to get
beyond criticism by Cal/OSHA investigators in social media that accused the
safety board of "grandstanding."
"We feel like that was the
past, that was a mistake," he said and that the safety board had accepted
He said his agency's goal is to get
as much information to the public as possible, as compared with the regulatory
agencies charged with deciding whether to charge Chevron with safety violations.
Don Holmstrom, who is managing the
investigation for the board, said he was concerned that more than 20 workers
were near the leak when the cloud formed. Some escaped just 20 seconds before
the fire erupted, he said.
"When you have a leak, you want
to have control of the area," he said. "We are examining the issue of
the number of people and why they were there."
Jaxon Van Derbeken is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org