CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- At about 6:30 p.m. on Aug. 6, 2012, a pipe ruptured inside the No. 4 crude unit at the Chevron USA Inc. refinery in Richmond, Calif. A large, vapor cloud was released that engulfed 19 workers.
Two minutes later, the vapor cloud ignited. The workers escaped. No one was killed, and employees narrowly avoided serious injury. But in the weeks that followed the incident, about 15,000 area residents sought medical treatment for exposure to the toxic cloud.
Federal investigators found that the pipe involved was extremely corroded, and over a 10-year period, investigators say, Chevron "repeatedly failed . . . to apply inherently safer design principles and upgrade piping," steps that could have prevented the incident.
Now, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board is pointing to what happened at Chevron as proof of the need for a radical change in the way industrial safety is practiced and regulated.
CSB investigators recommend replacing the existing patchwork of regulations with a more rigorous "safety case" system that's been adopted in the United Kingdom, Norway and Australia.
As explained in a CSB report released Dec. 16, this system requires companies to demonstrate to regulators -- through a written "safety case report" -- how major hazards are to be controlled and risks reduced to "as low as reasonably practicable." The goal of the program is to shift responsibility for continued reductions in major accident risks from regulators to the companies.
The new CSB report comes as the Obama administration is considering ways to improve industrial safety across the country, in the wake of the April fertilizer plant explosion that killed 15 people, injured hundreds and flattened part of the town of West, Texas.
CSB officials recommend the program for petroleum refinery regulation in California, but board Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso said California "could serve as a model for the nation by adopting this system."
"After exhaustively analyzing the facts, the CSB investigation team found many ways that major refinery accidents like the Chevron fire could be made less likely by improving regulations," Moure-Eraso said.
"Refinery rules need to focus on driving down risk to the lowest practicable level, rather than completing required paperwork," he said. "Companies, workers and communities will all benefit from a rigorous system like the safety case."
The draft CSB report on the Chevron fire says agency investigators have found there is "a considerable problem with significant and deadly incidents at petroleum refineries over the last decade."
In 2012 alone, the CSB tracked 125 "significant process-safety incidents" at U.S. petroleum refineries." The United States has experienced financial losses from refinery accidents that are at least three times that of industry counterparts in other countries, the CSB says, citing insurance industry statistics.