Minor fire at Tosco refinery

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Posted at 5:40 p.m. PDT Tuesday, June 6, 2000

Minor fire at Tosco refinery, site of fatal explosion last year

MARTINEZ, Calif. (AP) -- A minor fire at the Tosco refinery spewed thick black smoke into the air above Martinez on Tuesday afternoon.

The fire started when a vat of coke, the heavy residue left after petroleum is distilled, overflowed. The coke material ignited when it hit the ground.

Two employees were treated for smoke inhalation. Tosco officials did not yet know how much square footage was burned, and Tosco employees were cooling off the area to begin their investigation.

Officials from Contra Costa County's Hazardous Materials Program say the fire was put out in about 15 minutes and the surrounding community was not affected.

Why the vat overflowed is still under investigation and there is no word yet if Tosco will be fined.

Tosco will have to provide the county with a report in three days and another after 30 days detailing the cause of the fire, how the refinery dealt with it, and future actions it will take to prevent this from happening again.

Tosco is still dealing with the aftermath of an explosion and fire that killed four people in 1999. In May, families of three of the workers settled a wrongful death suit and Tosco now has to pay them $21 million. The family of the fourth worker has a suit pending.


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), June 07, 2000


Tosco Begins Shutting Down Some Units After Fire Supervisors warn of stricter regulation

Bernadette Tansey, Chronicle Staff Writer Thursday, June 8, 2000

CONTRA COSTA -- Tosco decided to shut down processing units yesterday in an area damaged by fire this week at its refinery near Martinez, while Contra Costa County supervisors warned an industry association that oversight laws will tighten if accidents continue.

In the aftermath of its second fire this year, Tosco began the gradual process of taking its coker units out of production, said company spokesman Jeff Lyon.

The units, which break down a fraction of crude oil into lighter fuel components, were not damaged by a fireball that erupted Tuesday when ``diesel-like'' fuel escaped from a tank and hit a hot surface. But the fire did damage a nearby boiler that processed waste products from the coker unit.

With the boiler down, the sooty coker exhaust was sent straight up the boiler stack in a plume that was still visible yesterday.

Tosco asked the Bay Area Air Quality Management District for an emergency variance on standards for visible emissions, but the agency denied the request.

The company had tried overnight to minimize the emissions and keep the coker running, Lyon said, but the reductions did not satisfy company officials. If workers are able to reroute the waste materials to another boiler, the company may cancel the shutdown of the coker units.

Gasoline production would not be reduced by a shutdown, Lyon said, because the company could process some of the heavy crude oil fractions at a similar unit in its nearby Rodeo refinery.

Investigations into the cause of the fire were delayed by a painstaking cleanup of damaged insulation material that may contain asbestos.

The fire started after a light oil compound similar to diesel fuel escaped from an outdoor tank at the coker complex, apparently flowed downhill and ignited when it hit a hot surface, said county hazardous materials expert Randy Sawyer. Sawyer said he did not yet know how the volatile liquid got out of the tank.

Two contract workers who were on a nearby elevated platform inspecting a permanent hoisting crane at the unit were overcome by choking black smoke when the fireball erupted.

``If I was in his place I probably would be very frightened,'' Sawyer said. Both workers were treated at the refinery and released.

In March, two refinery workers were burned when fuel-contaminated firefighting water ignited. Last year, four workers were killed and another was permanently disabled when escaping fuel ignited and a distillation tower was engulfed in flames.

County supervisors who addressed about 100 members of the county Industrial Association at a lunch meeting in Concord yesterday said Tosco's continuing history of accidents and the intense media coverage of refinery upsets create public pressure for tougher safety laws that may end up affecting trouble-free plants.

``You have to understand that a truck can't backfire in your parking lot without news helicopters circling overhead and media folks and print journalists wanting to know what happened,'' Supervisor Joe Canciamilla told the industry officials. ``We will react to that.''

The county board will consider later this month whether to start a program of surprise inspections at refineries and require hazardous chemical handlers to submit more detailed safety reports.

Supervisor Donna Gerber said the vast majority of industrial plants operate without serious incidents. But she challenged the industry association to help the county police troubled plants.

``If we don't have accidents and employees are not hurt in serious ways, I think you're going to see a lot less pressure from the Board of Supervisors to find new ways to regulate,'' Gerber said

http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi? file=/chronicle/archive/2000/06/08/MN106010.DTL

-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), June 08, 2000.

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