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Wednesday, 07 August 2013 09:18

California City Sues Chevron Alleging Willful Negligence and Public Harm in Toxic Refinery Fire

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fire8 7The city of Richmond, California, is suing Chevron for “years of neglect, lax oversight and corporate indifference to necessary safety inspection and repairs," which the city alleges resulted in a toxic East Bay refinery fire last August 6th that sent approximately 15,000 people to hospitals and other healthcare providers for care.

According to CBS news in San Francisco,

The fire occurred after a leak in a corroded pipe in the refinery’s crude oil unit created a large cloud of hydrocarbon vapor that ignited in a fireball at about 6:30 p.m. that day.

The fire burned for several hours before being controlled and sent a huge plume of toxic black smoke over the area....

The lawsuit, authorized by the City Council last week, seeks financial compensation for economic damage to the city, including the costs of emergency response, firefighting, environmental cleanup, alleviating harm to public health, and loss of value in city property.

Richmond would also like a punitive financial verdict in the civil suit to compel Chevron to be more responsible for oversight of its facilities.

According to CBS, a Chevron spokesperson dismissively responded to the municipal law suit, “We believe the decision to pursue such a suit is a waste of the city’s resources and yet another example of its failed leadership.”

But Chevron may have a challenging time persuading a jury that it wasn't negligent because it has just settled a criminal lawsuit with the State of California and Contra Costa County (where Richmond is located).  According to the Associated Press,

Chevron Corp. on Monday agreed to pay $2 million in fines and restitution and pleaded no contest to six charges in a fire last summer at its refinery in the San Francisco Bay Area city of Richmond that sent thousands of residents to hospitals, many complaining of respiratory problems. The San Ramon-based oil giant entered the plea to charges filed by the California Attorney General's Office and the Contra Costa District Attorney's Office, including failing to correct deficiencies in equipment and failing to require the use of certain equipment to protect employees from potential harm.

Both Chevron and government investigations determined that corrosion in a pipe caused a leak that sparked the Aug. 6, 2012, fire, sending a plume of black smoke over nearby residential areas. The investigations found Chevron failed to replace the 1970s-era pipe despite numerous warnings from its own inspectors. [Italics inserted by BuzzFlash at Truthout.]

"This criminal case achieves our goals of holding Chevron accountable for their conduct, protecting the public, and ensuring a safer work environment at the refinery," Contra Costa District Attorney Mark Peterson said in a statement.

Although the minor fine given Chevron's billions of dollars in profit may appear a rather light slap on the wrist, the oil giant's plea of no contest, along with its acceptance of 3 1/2 years of probation -- will the Chevron CEO be forced to wear an ankle bracelet? -- will likely make for compelling evidence in a civil suit, particularly if the case is actually prosecuted in the Bay Area and is composed of local residents.

Furthermore, as the San Francisco CBS affiliate reported,

A metallurgical report showed the 40-year-old pipe that failed, causing the leak, initially was weakened by the heavy sulfur content of the crude oil being pumped through it. After a small leak sent hydrocarbons into the air, a small flash fire was put out. But a larger gash in the pipe released a bigger cloud of flammable gas, leading to a larger fire.

A video released by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board in April showed how Chevron's decision not to shut down production after the small pipe leak was detected led to a series of bad decisions that made the leak worse. In one scene, a company firefighter strikes the pipe with a pike pole while trying to help colleagues pinpoint the leak.

In an August 6th appearance on Democracy Now, Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin (Green Party) told Amy Goodman that the city was not backing down from its civil suit despite Chevron's criminal charge settlement with the state and county.

Over the weekend, approximately 200 protesters were arrested as groups concerned about climate change peacefully marked the first anniversary of the Chevron refinery fire.  Mayor McLauglin joined the large march and rally.

For other Buzzflash at Truthout commentaries on the City of Richmond's "mad as Hell and won't take it anymore" innovative ideas for corporate accountability and social change, read:

Richmond California Plans to Save Families From Foreclosure Through Eminent Domain

Richmond CA Unshackles Ex-Prisoners to Find Jobs by Prohibiting Employer Blacklisting

(Photo: Loving Earth)