NuStar facility locked when firefighters arrived, supervisors says

Inspectors assess the damage at the NuStar Energy plant in Crockett after a fire on Oct. 15, 2019

A Contra Costa County Supervisor is raising questions about the safety preparedness and training of employees at the NuStar Energy facility in Crockett after a massive fire broke out on Tuesday, and he is concerned that there was an initial delay that prevented first responders from immediately getting inside.

Contra Costa County Supervisor John Gioia confirmed to KTVU on Friday that firefighters first encountered locked gates at the front of the facility and found the entire place nearly abandoned, with nobody to tell them what happened or what was burning.

The San Francisco Chronicle first reported the issues.

According to the Chronicle, eventually crews found one worker, who explained that a tank had exploded but that employee did not know what was stored in there. Gioia confirmed that to KTVU. 

In addition, NuStar Energy’s workers fled the scene and the emergency fire suppression system was not activated, the supervisor said, adding that he was worried that the workers are not properly trained on how to react in an emergency. 

NuStar acknowledged that the scene was chaotic, but denied that their employees are not well trained.

"While all our employees are very familiar with the products in our tanks, the combustion happened so quickly and so unexpectedly, that there was some initial confusion about which tanks were impacted," facility spokeswoman Mary Rose Brown said Friday morning in an email.  "Our employees are well-trained on the protocol of how and when to activate our fire suppression equipment.  Unfortunately, in this case, given the speed, intensity and particular location of this combustion, the suppression equipment for that part of the facility was inaccessible until first responders arrived to cool the area down with water."

Brown also said that the front gates are closed at all times per the Maritime Transportation Security Act and that the gate is about 50 feet from the front gate. Once firefighters arrived, she said, "we immediately activated the gate, which takes about one minute to open." Steve Hill, spokesman for the Contra Costa County Fire Protection District, confirmed the confusion caused about a minute delay.

She added that once the company confirmed the two tanks involved, NuStar was able to identify the product and the volume immediately and notified firefighters accordingly. It's not fair, she said, to say that employees weren't aware of what was in the tanks. "We only store four products at the terminal," she said, listing off diesel, gasoline, jet fuel and ethanol. "So, of course, our employees are well aware of which products are in which tanks."

On Friday morning, a hillside fire down the road from NuStar broke out at 20050 San Pablo Avenue near the Dead Fish Restaurant. Oct. 19, 2019

Finally, Brown said it's also not accurate to say the employees left their posts and fled. Employees are trained to report to their "muster point" to account for and verify the safety of themselves and others. "In this case," she said, "the muster point is just outside the gate across the road. So while employees moved to a safe location away from the tanks, they did not abandon the facility. "
The cause of the fire is still under investigation.

Investigators have accessed security footage and digital files.

Contra Costa Fire Protection District updated their progress in the investigation Friday afternoon. They said they were working to review administrative and digital evidence as well as interviews of witnesses and other experts. The containment ponds still need to be demmed safe before they can be completely drained so that investigators can enter them. In the meantime, NuStar is collecting materials from the ponds and storing it at an offsite location for proper disposal, fire officials said. 

The Nustar Energy facility remains closed. The Cal/OSHA-mandated shutdown will be lifted as soon as it’s determined there is no hazard and NuStar can operate safely.

Meanwhile, about 6 a.m. on Friday morning, a hillside fire down the road from NuStar broke out at 20050 San Pablo Avenue near the Dead Fish Restaurant. Firefighters said it was a homeless encampment. Amtrak had to stop all service in this area. CalFire rushed in to assist the Crockett-Carquinez Fire Department to put it out.