An investigation is underway into the cause of the huge fire at the Chevron refinery in August which destroyed part of the refinery and sent 15,000 people to hospital seeking treatment for respiratory problems due to the smoke. The findings are rather surprising and potentially damning for Chevron.
A metallurgical report has stated that the 40 year old pipe, the culprit of the fire, was already weakened due to the high sulphur content crude oil that it carried. A small leak occurred which firefighters were sent in to repair, but it’s possible that in doing so they accidently gouged the pipe, making the hole larger and increasing the amount of fuel that was leaking out, which then ignited and caused the blaze; the report suggests that the hole in the pipe was caused by an external force.
Investigators from the Chemical Safety Board are trying to determine whether the firefighters may have damaged the pipe whilst they used tools to tear away the insulation. Daniel Horowitz, the managing director of the Chemical Safety Board, claimed that “one theory we are exploring is that emergency response activities inadvertently accelerated the rate of the leak. We are comparing possible tool marks on the pipe with tools recovered from the incident.”
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Don Holmstrom, the lead investigator for the Chemical Safety Board, said that the blaze may well have happened eventually, but that the external damage to the pipe witnessed could have accelerated the situation.
The main fact that the investigators find difficult to believe is that Chevron decided to continue pumping crude oil through the pipe whilst repairs were attempted on the initial small leak, if the flow of oil had been stopped then it could never have fuelled the resulting conflagration.
Horowitz mentioned that, “regardless of the exact sequence of the events, this incident emphasizes the importance of effective decision-making in shutting down the unit promptly in case of a leak of this type.”
By. Charles Kennedy of Oilprice.com