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Federal Agency Proposes Big Shift in Refinery Regulation After Chevron Fire

As the U.S. Chemical Safety Board urges more rigorous refinery regulation in California, the Berkeley City Council will review a proposal on Tuesday for stricter public-notice requirements for toxic releases from refinery accidents.

Smoke billows from the Chevron Richmond refinery during the August 2012 fire.
Smoke billows from the Chevron Richmond refinery during the August 2012 fire.

The federal agency charged with investigating serious chemical accidents is recommending major changes to the way California regulates oil refineries after finding that Chevron “missed opportunities” to prevent a fire at the company’s Richmond plant in August 2012.

In a report released Monday, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board proposed that California adopt a “a more rigorous, performance-based regulatory regime” similar to those used in Europe and Australia. Known as the "safety case" system, the idea is to shift the burden of proving a refinery is safe to operate from regulators to owners.

The report comes as the Berkeley City Council considers a proposal on the Tuesday night council agenda calling for stricter public-notice requirements for toxic releases from refinery accidents. 

CSB Chairman Dr. Rafael Moure-Eraso said in a press release:

“The current regulatory system for process safety is largely reactive, at both the state and federal level; companies have a default right to operate, and are subject to penalties when accidents occur or their activities otherwise draw negative attention from regulators. In the case of the Chevron refinery fire, the reactive system of regulation simply did not work to prevent what was ultimately a preventable accident."

The fire at the Richmond refinery on Aug. 6, 2012 sent 15,000 people to hospitals and earned Chevron a $2 million fine. 

Chevron USA Inc. said in a statement that it would continue to work with the safety board, the city of Richmond, Contra Costa County and regulatory agencies groups "to implement appropriate measures that enhance safety at our Richmond facility." 

"While we await the release of the Board's final report, we are already taking a series of actions in response to the August 2012 incident," the company said.

The board is expected to adopt the report at its meeting in January. The draft report is available for public comment until Jan. 3 2014. Comments should be sent to chevroncomments@csb.gov. All comments received will be reviewed and published on the CSB website.

About the CSB: "The CSB is an independent federal agency charged with investigating serious chemical accidents. The agency's board members are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. CSB investigations look into all aspects of chemical accidents, including physical causes such as equipment failure as well as inadequacies in regulations, industry standards, and safety management systems. The Board does not issue citations or fines but does make safety recommendations to plants, industry organizations, labor groups, and regulatory agencies such as OSHA and EPA." 

Bay City News Service contributed to this report. 


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