RICHMOND//CHEVRON FIRE | Federal, state and local officials say they were not aware of corrosive pipes at the Richmond Chevron refinery until after a fire Aug. 6, 2012 engulfed a unit of the facility. A report from the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) last February found Chevron was aware of the faulty pipe pinpointed as the cause of the fire as early as 2002.

Officials from the CSB also found the state’s regulatory staff for investigating the safety is woefully understaffed and unable to sufficiently monitor its over 1,600 statewide refineries to prevent accidents from occurring in the future

Representatives from the CSB, California Occupational Safety & Hazards Agency (Cal/OSHA) and Contra County Environmental Health Services each told Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner during a hearing on the Richmond refinery fire Friday afternoon, knowledge of the corrosive pipe was only discovered after the explosion which left a large black plume of smoke hovering over North Richmond and causing over 15,000 residents to seek medical help for respiratory problems.

East Bay State Sens. Loni Hancock and Mark DeSaulnier, along with Contra Costa County Supervisor John Gioia and Skinner said they intended to use the hearing as a springboard to crafting better legislation to tighten what they believed were already stringent laws.

“Clearly none of us are happy the company itself did not correct [the corroded pipe],” said Skinner, “but what’s disturbing is that we would have felt very proud or we felt very good that we had some good regulations in place.”

However, Don Holmstrom, western director for the CSB, said federal oversight of safety issues at U.S. refineries is lax and needs to perform in a more proactive manner, rather than reactive, as it is today. There are also no rules in place that forces oil companies, like Chevron, to conduct inspections for corroded pipes at its refineries or forced them to replace aging pipes, said Holmstrom. “In the case of the Chevron refinery fire,” said Holmstrom, “the reactive system of regulation simply did not work to prevent what was ultimately a preventable accident.”

While the unit of the Chevron Richmond Refinery damaged in the August fire was approved to go online Friday by Cal/OSHA, the head of the state agency, Ellen Widess told legislators she is comfortable with the recommended changes made by Chevron. Since being fined $963,000 for 25 violations last January stemming from the fire, Widess says, 15 have already been corrected by the oil company. However, all violations are still pending appeal with no end in sight. When asked by Hancock how long the appeals process can be dragged out, Widess simply said, “a long time.”

Hancock noted the difficulties battling Chevron on appeal at a time when funding for many state agencies have met the budget crunch. “I’m not sure what we do about it if you’re trying to impose a penalty on one of the most profitable corporations in the world and that has unlimited resources around the world.” In addition, the state has no right to recouping legal fees from Chevron, if victorious, on appeal.

To help strengthened fines for large-scale air quality accidents, Hancock offered a bill, SB 691, earlier this year that would increase one-day civil penalties against polluters from $25,000 to $100,000. The bill was passed by the State Senate Environmental Quality Committee, 6-2, on Wednesday and referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by Hancock.