Chevron Counts on Jigsaw Puzzle of Safety Regulation to Escape Oversight, Accountability, Says Consumer Watchdog

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Santa Monica, CA — Monday night’s explosion and hours-long fire at Chevron’s large oil refinery in Richmond, Ca., released toxic chemicals including sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide in unknown amounts, sending hundreds of local residents to local hospitals with breathing and eye complaints. Yet the state agency with the most expertise in regulating such toxins, the Department of Toxic Substances Control, claims it has little to no oversight of dangerous substances produced in refinery accidents, said Consumer Watchdog.

“The Department of Toxic Substances Control regulates hazardous waste in the state of California,” said consumer advocate Liza Tucker.  “And there isn’t a single refinery that doesn’t produce or store hazardous waste.”  Instead, the DTSC limits itself to regulating around 80 hazardous waste facilities that specifically process hazardous waste. It only oversees hazardous waste storage at refineries.  Even recyclers of used motor oil are not subject to its purview if an accident involves certified recycled oil.

Consumer Watchdog called on the State Attorney General to investigate the failure of the state to adequately supervise hazardous refineries and their toxic emissions in the wake of a series of recent refinery fires, including Chevron and Evergreen Oil.

Refinery oversight is distributed among city and county fire and health agencies, the state Air Quality Management Districts, California Occupational Safety and Health Agency, various water agencies, Cal-EPA and more.  The state Department of Toxic Substances Control has declined to seek authority over toxins produced by refineries, even though their large-scale toxic releases can put far more residents in immediate danger than a toxic waste collector or recycler, said Consumer Watchdog.

The Monday fire at Chevron was a near duplicate of a 1999 incident at the Richmond refinery that involved multiple explosions and fires and sickened an even larger number of residents. A smaller 2007 fire was, like Monday’s explosion, apparently triggered by a pipe leak and shut down the entire refinery for a few months at the beginning of the year.

See account of 1999 fire here:

“Chevron glibly blames environmentalists and local residents for blocking plant expansions, but refuses blame for failing to make its refinery, in the middle of the densely populated Bay Area, as safe as it could be,” said Tucker, an advocate at Consumer Watchdog. “State regulators make such evasion easy by passing the buck to other state and local agencies.  And now what we’re seeing is regulation by crisis. Huge corporations just aren’t going to bother to be in safety compliance when they don’t fear real accountability.”

Fourteen years ago, the Board of Supervisors passed the Contra Costa County Industrial Safety Ordinance. It mandates seven large refiners and chemical companies, including Chevron, develop stringent safety programs to prevent chemical releases and accidents as a supplement to existing federal and state programs.  As a result, there have been fewer releases and chemical accidents over the past decade. “Not every county can afford to enforce this kind of a program,” said Tucker.  “Oil refineries have lots of moving parts and the state should be doing unified regulation but has repeatedly failed to do so.”

See ordinance here:

Effect On Gas Prices

There is toxic fallout of a different sort from today’s Chevron fire.  Gas prices in California could spike by 10 to 20 cents a gallon, depending on how many crude processing units Chevron shuts down, according to commercial petroleum analysts.

See Bloomberg here:

Gas prices in California are higher than in the rest of the nation in any case due to California’s isolation in the national refinery market.  “We are hostages to our own refineries,” said Tucker.  “And the oil industry consistently manipulates gasoline supplies on hand to keep prices higher.”  California historically has had about 10 fewer days of supply on hand than the rest of the nation, even though its isolation should require more days of supply on hand.

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Liza Tucker
Liza Tucker
Liza Tucker is a consumer advocate for Consumer Watchdog, following everything from oil and gas to the regulation of toxic substances in the state of California. She comes to us from Marketplace, the largest U.S. broadcast show on business and economics heard by ten million listeners each week on 400 radio stations. Liza worked at this public radio show for a decade, first as Commentary Editor and then as Senior Editor for both Washington and Sustainability News.

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