East Bay: Rodeo’s Phillips 66 refinery fire extinguished
By George Kelly, 08/03/2015 06:27:13 AM PDT
RODEO — A small fire Sunday at the Phillips 66 refinery spurred the county health department to issue a public health advisory for the towns of Rodeo and Crockett.
The fire began around 3 p.m. at the refinery site in the 1300 block of San Pablo Avenue, spurring a response from refinery fire staff and Rodeo-Hercules fire district firefighters, Phillips 66 spokesman Paul Adler said in a statement. No injuries were reported, and the fire’s cause is under investigation, Adler said.
The Contra Costa County incident warning system issued an alert just before 3:15 p.m. that staff concerned with hazardous materials were responding to a report of a fire at the refinery. County officials advise people with respiratory sensitivities to avoid the area or stay inside and rinse any irritated area with water but added that most people should not be affected.
The county’s hazardous materials incident response site listed the refinery’s last major incident as a little more than three years ago. On June 15, 2012, an overpressured sour water tank left splits in two tanks, sending chemical vapors into the air and leaving odors detectable in surrounding communities, according to a tally of major accidents at the county’s chemical and refinery plants.
CONCORD — A mysterious earthquake fault slices under central Concord, its jagged, quarter-mile-wide seam running beneath a critical fuel-pumping facility, traversing the edge of a refinery processing 166,000 barrels of crude oil daily, and undercutting strip malls and homes.
While its big sisters, the San Andreas and Hayward fissures, grab the headlines, the Concord Fault — with its 11-mile-long fracture zone stretching from the Carquinez Strait to the Mount Diablo foothills — is also capable of producing a catastrophic earthquake, geologists say. And with critical infrastructure in its path, particularly refineries and a vulnerable railroad bridge not far away, a large seismic event could leave the entire northern half of the state without easy access to fuel — disrupting transportation and the transmission of electricity and water, according to a recent study.
The Concord fissure may be largely ignored by the general public. But not by geologists.
“The Concord Fault is significantly more active than the fault that caused the Napa earthquake,” said Chris Wills of the California Geological Survey, referring to the 6.0 wine country temblor last August that caused more than $400 million in damage. “Nobody would be surprised if a magnitude-6 earthquake happened on the Concord Fault tomorrow.”
Make no mistake, Concord’s contribution to the Bay Area’s geologic activity is significantly smaller than the San Andreas and Hayward zones. Updated U.S. Geological Survey estimates indicate a 3 to 4 percent probability of a magnitude-6.7 or higher earthquake over the next 30 years on the Concord or lower Green Valley Fault, a connected Solano County segment, compared with 6.4 percent for the San Andreas and 14.3 percent for the Hayward Fault.
The Concord Fault creeps a measly 4 to 5 millimeters annually, while the Hayward slips 9 millimeters and San Andreas 25 millimeters.
The last catastrophic temblor on the Contra Costa-Solano combo fault struck more than 400 years ago, but geologists still say it’s important to monitor.
“At some point in time that system has to fail — we just don’t know exactly when,” said David Schwartz with the USGS. Even if the Concord Fault only produces a 5.0 quake, it could cause significant damage, Schwartz said.
The great unknown
On Oct. 23, 1955, a 5.4 quake — the Concord Fault’s last major temblor — was felt from San Jose to Sacramento. It caused $1 million in damage ($8.7 million in today’s dollars) and one fatality, according to the USGS. Windows shattered, brick walls cracked and moved, chimneys shifted and wine bottles crashed from liquor store shelves.
What makes the Concord Fault particularly worrisome to regional planners, so much so that it was highlighted in a December study by the Association of Bay Area Governments, is its potential impact on regional and statewide fuel distribution. Without gasoline, every other crucial need, including water, electricity and transportation, will be affected.
In its report, ABAG studied three theoretical earthquakes — a 7.9 on the San Andreas, a 7.0 on the Hayward and 6.8 on the Concord.
“Originally, we were just going to explore the San Andreas and Hayward faults, but we realized that (there are) a lot of key infrastructure assets in (the Concord) region,” said study author Michael Germeraad, an ABAG resilience planner.
Five Bay Area refineries — all but two are within a couple miles of the fault — processed 235 million barrels of crude in 2012, about 40 percent of the state’s total, according to ABAG. In addition, Kinder Morgan operates a pumping station nearby that receives processed crude from all the refineries and pipes it out to terminals across Northern California and Nevada.
That pumping station, a critical piece of fuel infrastructure, lies directly above the Concord Fault.
Built in the 1950s, the station receives products from eight facilities and pumps the refined crude through pipelines. It can store about 1 million barrels, but normal inventory is half of that, said Melissa Ruiz, a Kinder Morgan spokeswoman. Its five outgoing pipelines serve Chico, Fresno, Reno, Sacramento, San Jose, Stockton and surrounding cities, in addition to seven military facilities and public airports.
The company has facilities and pipelines in active fault areas throughout California but has never lost a pipeline or tank to a quake and maintains its infrastructure to industry rules and regulations, Ruiz said.
In its report, ABAG said it had concerns because pipelines can fail due to soil liquefaction — where hard soil loses strength during strong ground shaking — and fault rupture. Knowing pipeline material, age, weld types and other factors would help scientists know where failures are “more likely,” but that information isn’t available.
“Damage to the Concord station would interrupt fuel transmission across the northern half of the state,” the report concluded.
The study also found that if one Bay Area refinery was damaged, they would all likely suffer damage because of their close proximity to each other, and because they are built on similar soils and have similar construction.
“A conservative restoration estimate of damaged refineries is months,” the study found for the Concord quake scenario.
The Tesoro Golden Eagle facility in Martinez sits on 2,206 acres just feet from the fault. Built in 1903, Golden Eagle employs about 650 workers and is the fourth-largest refinery in California.
Spokeswoman Patricia Deutsche said refinery officials are aware it sits next to the fault and a liquefaction zone, but she said the facility follows industry design standards. Piles are driven down hundreds of feet into bedrock, equipment has been retrofitted and the Avon Wharf, an oil terminal located on aging timber piles along the southern shore of Suisun Bay, just received environmental clearance for retrofit up to state quake standards, she said.
Seismic assessments of Bay Area refineries are done every five years, and the building code requirements consider the level of possible ground shaking from any nearby fault, said Gayle Johnson, senior engineer with Simpson Gumpertz & Heger, a national engineering firm.
Johnson, who has investigated the performance of industrial facilities in more than 20 earthquakes worldwide, said since the refinery retrofit programs began in the late 1980s and early 1990s, there has been a “ton of upgrade work done.”
While fuel infrastructure may be the top concern for the region, a large quake could disrupt other major lifelines. The Benicia-Martinez rail bridge, located between the two vehicle spans, is particularly vulnerable, according to ABAG, and could face “significant or complete damage.”
Liquefaction along the Carquinez Strait could cause dredged water channels to slough into the shipping pathways. Runways could rupture at Buchanan Field, which sits adjacent to the fault. Delta levees could breach, creating flooding and impacting drinking water quality, ABAG found.
Two-thirds of the power generated in the region is produced by natural gas facilities, many along the Carquinez Strait.
“In the event natural gas lines are damaged, these facilities will be unable to generate electricity,” the study found.
Still, Wills warns that what will happen during a significant quake on the Concord Fault is largely a mystery.
“How it releases is not that well known,” he said.
The growth in oil-train shipments fueled by the U.S. energy boom has stalled in recent months, dampened by safety problems and low crude prices.
The number of train cars carrying crude and other petroleum products peaked last fall, according to data from the Association of American Railroads, and began edging down. In March, oil-train traffic was down 7% on a year-over-year basis.
Railroads have been a major beneficiary of the U.S. energy boom, as oil companies turned to trains to move crude to refineries from remote oil fields in North Dakota and other areas not served by pipelines. Rail shipments of oil have expanded from 20 million barrels in 2010 to just under 374 million barrels last year, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
About 1.38 million barrels a day of oil and fuels like gasoline rode the rails in March, versus an average of 1.5 million barrels a day in the same period a year ago, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of the railroad association’s data.
Oil-train traffic declined 1% in the fourth quarter of 2014 as crude-oil prices started to tumble toward $50 a barrel. More recently, data from the U.S. Energy Department show oil-train movements out of the prolific Bakken Shale in North Dakota have leveled off as drillers there have begun to pump less, though oil-train shipments from the Rocky Mountain region have risen.
The slowdown comes as federal safety experts call for stronger tank cars. On Monday the National Transportation Safety Board recommended an aggressive five-year schedule for phasing out or upgrading older railcars used to haul crude-oil. A string of oil train accidents in recent months have resulted in spills, intense fires and community evacuations. The NTSB said railcars in use today rupture too quickly and aren’t fire-resistant enough.
A few incidents have involved more modern tank cars—the CPC-1232 model. The NTSB also said the new railcar’s design isn’t sturdy enough. “We can’t wait a decade for safer rail cars,” said NTSB Chairman Christopher A. Hart Monday in a letter to federal transportation regulators.
Opponents of a fast phaseout have said that if tougher standards are introduced too quickly it will create a railcar shortage and make some oil train operations unprofitable.
Many refiners, including Philadelphia Energy Solutions, say they are still committed to shipping oil on trains. Chief Executive Phil Rinaldi in December said he likes that railroads don’t require long-term contractual agreements the way pipelines do. That allows his plant managers to buy crude only when it’s needed.
With pipelines, “you have to pay for that transit whether it makes sense or not,” Mr. Rinaldi said. “With rail, that’s not the case.”
Railroad operators have warned investors that their outlook for transporting crude is slightly weaker than it was last year, said David Vernon, a rail analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein & Co.
BNSF Railway Co., which is responsible for about 70% of U.S. oil-train traffic, operated as many as 10 trains a day last year, but is averaging nine a day now, a spokesman said.
“It shows us things we have to tweak and modify,” City Manager LeRoy Jackson said at Tuesday evening’s City Council meeting in response to complaints from the council and public alike. “We did not use all the tools in our toolbox.”
Still, the incident has attracted the attention of state legislators. The Senate Energy, Utilities and Communications Committee and the Environmental Quality Committee will hold a joint hearing at 6 p.m. March 5 at City Hall to address the emergency response, the refinery’s safety record and impacts to the community.
Inadequacies to the emergency response addressed Tuesday included:
A decision not to use the ExxonMobil emergency siren to alert the community to the explosion and subsequent ash and dust fallout because officials determined the emergency was confined to the 750-acre refinery. “We have this great siren system that wasn’t used and it probably should have been,” Councilman Mike Griffiths said.
A decision not to close the barriers that cordon off Crenshaw Boulevard, the closest thoroughfare to the explosion. “We had a close scrape here,” said Councilman Kurt Weideman. “The question arises in my mind why we didn’t close the barriers on Crenshaw.”
The ineffectiveness of a new, partially implemented Torrance Alerts automated mass telephone notification system that informs residents of what they should do in the case of an emergency or natural disaster. Mayor Pat Furey, who lives two blocks from the refinery, said it took three phone calls before the recorded alert played, while Weideman said he didn’t get one at all at his north Torrance home of 35 years.
Councilman Geoff Rizzo said the alert’s readout on his caller ID did not convey the urgency of the situation, a sentiment echoed by Councilwoman Heidi Ashcraft, who screens all calls to her home phone.
A lack of education about what the public should do when hearing the siren, or as one resident put it: Should people “run like hell” or shelter at their home or office? (It’s the latter.)
“We need, along with the refinery, to do a better job of outreach and educating folks,” Deputy Fire Chief Dave Dumais said Wednesday.
Fire Chief William Racowschi said officials would use the incident as a “baseline” to incorporate what they learned into improving the largely untested mass notification system and other elements of the response.
“We learned a lot and, thank God, it was a localized event that didn’t cause a whole lot of destruction and death,” he said Wednesday.
Note: This version has been changed from the original to reflect Tim Goodrich’s status as a former, not current, worker for a labor union.