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Chevron fined $1 million for Calif. refinery fire

Jason Dearen, Associated Press

RICHMOND, Calif. (AP) -- Chevron was fined $1 million by the state on Wednesday in connection with a fire last year at the company's San Francisco Bay area refinery that sent a cloud of gas and black smoke over residential areas.

The California Division of Occupation Safety and Health said investigators found "willful violations" in Chevron Corp.'s response before, during and after the Aug. 6 fire in Richmond.

The agency filed 25 citations against Chevron, and said the fines were the largest allowed by state law. The company said it planned to appeal some of the violations.

The agency says the company didn't follow the 2002 recommendations of its own inspectors and scientists to replace the corroded pipe that ultimately ruptured and caused the fire.

"Chevron had pervasive violations in its leak repair procedures throughout the refinery," the agency found. "Investigators identified leaks in pipes that Chevron had clamped as a temporary fix. In some cases the clamps remained in place for years, rather than replacing the pipes themselves."

Cal-OSHA also cited violations for Chevron not following its own emergency shutdown procedures when the leak was first spotted, and said the company exposed workers to harm.

No workers were seriously injured in the incident.

"This case demonstrates the risks that occur when a refinery does not follow its own safety maintenance program," Ellen Widess, the agency's chief, said in a statement.

Eleven of the violations have been classified as "willful" because investigators found that Chevron had not taken actions to eliminate dangerous conditions for employees, including replacement of the pipe that ruptured.

Company spokesman Sean Comey said Chevron disagreed with some of the violations.

"Although we acknowledge that we failed to live up to our own expectations in this incident, we do not agree with several of the (Cal-OSHA) findings and its characterization of some of the alleged violations as 'willful,'" he said in an email.

Smoke and gas from the fire prompted thousands of people to seek medical treatment, with many complaining of eye irritation and breathing problems.

The fire was caused by a decades-old pipe that the company had neglected to replace, even after inspecting areas near the segment that failed less than a year earlier.

Chevron has paid $10 million in connection to nearly 24,000 claims from residents and to nearby hospitals and local government agencies in Richmond and Contra Costa County, the company said in a report filed earlier this week.

Most of that money went to the hospitals to pay for medical exams and treatments following the incident.