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Refineries take steps to ensure earthquake safety

By Jeff Shuttleworth, Bay City News Service

April 15, 2006

Most people probably wouldn't want to be near an oil refinery or a chemical plant when a big earthquake strikes.

But East Bay refineries and health officials believe they've done a good job of minimizing potential health and safety problems if the big one comes.

Randy Sawyer, the director of Contra Costa County's hazardous materials programs, said refineries and chemical plants are required to conduct seismic safety assessments and follow state guidance to prevent catastrophic releases of dangerous materials if there's a maximum-level earthquake.

He said the county also has programs in place to prevent accidental releases.

Sawyer said in the event of a major earthquake, his agency will use every communication means possible to warn county residents of any health problems, including sirens, automated phone calls and a pocket radio system.

Because a major temblor could disrupt local phone service, Contra Costa County officials have arranged for out-of-state callers in Tennessee or Arizona to phone county residents about any problems.

Sawyer said telephone service would be unpredictable and the out-of-state callers can make 500 calls at a time.

Contra Costa County officials also would notify the state Office of Emergency Services as well as news media such as Bay City News Service and KCBS-AM, he said.

In the event of health concerns, county officials likely would tell residents to shelter in place, shut their windows and doors and minimize phone use so phone lines aren't overwhelmed, Sawyer said.

Spokesman Mike Marcy of Tesoro's Golden Eagle refinery in Martinez said that while the facility dates back to 1913, it's been upgraded extensively over the years to make it more seismically safe.

Marcy said the refinery has been through a number of moderate earthquakes but so far it's never had to completely shut down.

Marcy said that following a seismic survey in 1988, Golden Eagle officials made structural modifications and seismic upgrades to better anchor the most critical places at the refinery, such as propane storage tanks and feed tanks for crude oil distillation units.

In addition, Tesoro has built a containment berm around crude oil tanks to prevent the collapse and release of their contents, he said.

Also, pipes for tanks have been retrofitted, March said.

The Golden Eagle refinery has the capacity to make 168,000 barrels of oil per day, making it the second-largest refinery in the Bay Area.

The largest is Chevron's refinery in Richmond, which has a capacity of 350,000 barrels per day.

Sawyer said the Golden Eagle refinery could be vulnerable because it's less than a mile from the Concord fault. However, he noted that the Concord fault isn't as big as the Hayward fault.

Marcy said, "We're well aware that we're situated in a seismically active part of the world," but he said company officials take some comfort in that the National Science Foundation has estimated that there's only a 4 percent chance of a quake of 6.7 magnitude or higher on the Concord fault between now and the year 2030.

Marcy said Tesoro has its own firefighting equipment and is a member of the Bay Area Petrochemical Mutual Aid Organization, which is a group of refineries and other organizations that band together to deal with problems with dangerous releases.

Tesoro also has "long-established procedures to alert the community,'' Marcy said.

Although the refinery has never been completely shut down, Marcy said Tesoro drills on shutdown procedures to take the refinery off-line safely if necessary.

He said that if the refinery had to be shut down, the company would flare off-gases.

Marcy said Tesoro would continue to operate after a large earthquake, even if the refinery had to shut down, and it has emergency call-out procedures to notify employees about coming to work.

He said one of the company's biggest challenges would be feeding its employees because it doesn't have a cafeteria.

Officials at the Shell refinery in Martinez and the Chevron refinery in Richmond couldn't be reached for comment on their plans for dealing with earthquakes.

Sawyer said Chevron has its own hazardous materials team and can assist the city of Richmond in dealing with any problems.

Sawyer said Contra Costa County does seismic safety assessments for chemical plants as well as for refineries.

He said that among the facilities the county monitors is the Dow Chemical plant in Pittsburg, which produces agricultural and pest-control products and has large amounts of chlorine.

Sawyer said the county also watches General Chemical's plant in Bay Point, which has hydrogen fluoride.

In addition, the county monitors hydrogen fluoride and oleum produced at General Chemical's plant in Martinez, he said.

Copyright © 2006 by Bay City News, Inc. -- Republication, Rebroadcast or any other Reuse without the express written consent of Bay City News, Inc. is prohibited.




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