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Updated: Fire breaks out at Chevron refinery in Richmond

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A fire struck the core of Chevron’s large Richmond refinery Monday evening, sending flames and a column of smoke into the air and prompting authorities to order nearby residents indoors.

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The fire was still blazing late into the night after starting at 6:30 p.m., but Chevron announced about 10:30 p.m. that the blaze was fully contained. The company would not say what caused the fire, only that it was investigating, despite numerous reports of explosions at the refinery.

The blaze hit the sole crude unit at the 245,000-barrel-per-day plant, which accounts for one-eighth of the state’s refining capacity.

Nearby residents were advised to shelter in place, an order often given during significant refinery accidents to shield against possible exposure to dangerous chemicals or smoke.

Chevron said in a statement that there had been only one minor injury at the refinery, which is celebrating its 110th anniversary. At its peak 10 years ago, it employed more than 1,300 people on a site larger than 2,900 acres, according to Chevron’s website.

Online photos showed the blaze sending a plume of black smoke into the air over the plant, which is located in a densely populated area of the East Bay. Four BART stations were shut.

“I looked out the window and saw 40-foot flames and black smoke,” said Marc Mowrey, who lives about a mile from the plant.

He said the smell was not exceptional or very different from other days, but a huge plume of smoke was sitting over Richmond and neighboring El Cerrito.

Local residents have periodically criticized the refinery, concerned about environmental issues and the taxes that Chevron pays to the impoverished city of Richmond.

Chevron said the fire had started in the No. 4 crude unit at 6:30 p.m., and it was not known when it might be extinguished. Sulfuric acid and nitrogen dioxide were released during the incident, according to a filing with the California Emergency Management Agency.

The No. 4 unit is the only one at the plant, according to documents filed with state regulators, and the status of other units was unknown, although it is common to shut down the entire plant in the event of a major blaze.

A Reuters reporter who lives nearby said he heard some loud bangs and a siren as the fire erupted, but a Chevron spokesman denied reports of an explosion. Chevron said it would not speculate as to what caused the fire.

Any prolonged disruption in production could have a significant impact on the regional fuel markets, potentially raising the cost of gasoline, due to California’s super-clean specifications and the fact that the West Coast region has few immediate alternative supply sources.

The crude distillation unit is at the heart of the refining process, converting the crude oil coming into a refinery into intermediate feedstock for all other units. It can take months to repair a CDU at a large plant, during which time operations are typically severely limited.

A Feb. 17 fire at the crude unit of BP’s Cherry Point, Wash., refinery led to a three-month shutdown and led to higher gas prices in that region.

Blaze Briefs

  • KTVU reported that the emergency room at Doctors Medical Center in San Pablo was packed with people seeking treatment for respiratory issues.
  • Richmond fire Chief Michael Banks said there were reports of explosions around the time the fire started.
  • Plant manager Nigel Hearn said a leak had been discovered at the crude distillation unit shortly before the fire. As the leak grew larger, workers were evacuated, he said.
  • Chevron said parts of the refinery were still operating Monday evening.
  • Frederick Hamilton, 51, told Bay City News that he was waiting out the fire at his home on Henry Clark Lane in North Richmond near the refinery. He had a headache and was coughing, and said the air was filled with a chemical odor. “You can smell it,” he said. “I was out there in it.”
  • Cash-paying motorists crossing the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge on Monday night passed through the toll plaza without paying but will be billed later, a Caltrans spokesman said. A California Highway Patrol officer said toll takers were sheltered in place at the plaza office because of the fire.