100 complaints logged over flaring at Chevron Richmond refinery, air quality district investigating

Flaring at the Chevron Richmond refinery Monday is under investigation by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District after it received about 100 complaints over flames, smoke and odors, the agency said Tuesday.

For more than 10 hours, workers burned off gasses following an unexpected power outage affecting part of the facility, Chevron said. The processing units were brought back online and power was restored Tuesday afternoon.

The process is typical in the event of a power outage to prevent a catastrophic fire or explosion.

A PG&E spokesperson confirmed to KTVU that it was not responsible for the power loss and no nearby neighborhood outages were reported.

Four stacks flared beginning just before 4 p.m. Monday sending thick, black smoke into the air that was seen for miles as it drifted north and east.

A Contra Costa County Community Warning System level one alert was filed by Chevron about the unanticipated flaring event.

"All that pressure built up has to go somewhere," said petroleum analyst Patrick De Haan with GasBuddy. "The safest way to get rid of it is to relieve that pressure and the unsafe thing would be to vent these chemicals purely to the sky. So there’s a flare involved."

A hazmat team was deployed to check for toxic air. However, investigators found no major risks or health impacts, the health department said. No shelter in place or evacuation orders were issued.

"Chevron takes safety and environmental protections seriously," the company said in a statement. "We are investigating the cause of the power failure and will implement any necessary and applicable preventive measures to avoid similar situations from occurring in the future."

The refinery followed up with a statement late Tuesday, to say they continue to work with local agencies to avoid a similar power outage in the future. They said the investigation is in its preliminary stages and that a "safety mechanism activated" on their "internal electrical system." That's what caused the partial power outage including at a steam generation plant, according to Chevron.

"Subsequently, our safety flares were activated as we worked to stabilize the operating units impacted by the outage. The loss of steam impacted other equipment within the facility that also contributed to the flaring. Additional event details are currently being reviewed and will be included in a preliminary incident report submitted to the County by Thursday," the statement read. 

Chevron Richmond refinery has been investigated before for flaring, explosions and other incidents.

In 1989, a major explosion injured eight workers and firefighters. In 1999, another explosions and fire emitted toxic gases leading to hundreds of neighbors being medically treated. Then, in 2012, a gas leak in a corroded pipe caused a massive fire that injured six workers and sent 15,000 people to emergency rooms and clinics, records show. Chevron faced $2 million in fines and restitution. And over the last decade, the refinery has logged dozens of flaring events.

"The air district and the county, year after year, have sought amendment of state law to increase the maximum fines and penalties for refinery incidents like this," Contra Costa County Supervisor John Gioia said. "Every year, business and industry defeats those bills."

Gioia said he has pushed to increase penalties in hope of preventing more flaring incidents, fires and explosions. He also wants to see neighbors protected from harmful gases and toxins released into the air.

"It is emotionally traumatic," he said. "There’s emotional distress for residents who live in Richmond. I know how it feels. I live there and it’s scary to see this and wonder what’s going on."

Chevron said intermittent flaring is still possible as it makes operational adjustments.

The air quality district has requested a 72-hour report from Chevron for this week's flaring incident.

Brooks Jarosz is an investigative reporter for KTVU. Email him at  brooks.jarosz@fox.com and follow him on Facebook and X @BrooksKTVU