By Braden Reddall
RICHMOND, California (Reuters) - The federal agency investigating the fire that broke out in August at Chevron Corp's oil refinery in Richmond, California, faulted the state's regulatory system for not being proactive enough in preventing accidents.
"The California process safety regulatory system lacked sufficient well-trained, technically competent staff and also lacked more rigorous regulatory requirements to require Chevron to reduce safety risk," said the U.S. Chemical Safety Board's lead investigator Dan Tillema at a public hearing in Richmond on Friday.
CSB Western Regional Director Don Holmstrom called upon California to change its regulatory system to one called "safety case" in which high-hazard industrial plants such as crude oil refineries would not be allowed to begin operating until they have proven they have reduced all safety risks to as low as reasonably practicable.
"That is a pre-condition for operating," Holmstrom said in a prepared statement at a public hearing before California legislators on Friday.
"There's a need for step change (in safety regulation)," Holmstrom said while answering questions during the Friday afternoon hearing. "The whole system needs improvement."
Holmstrom said the change to a safety case system would be a reversal from the current system in which high-hazard facilities are allowed to operate and are punished when they have a mishap or found in violation of a regulation.
Chevron said it would look at proposed changes in safety regulations.
"We will engage in constructive dialogue regarding any proposed industry-wide regulations that will allow us to remain competitive and operate at the highest levels of safety," said Chevron spokeswoman Melissa Ritchie.
In preliminary other findings released in the weeks following the fire, the Chemical Safety Board has faulted Chevron's failure to replace a heavily corroded pipe on the 245,000 barrel-per-day crude distillation unit that ruptured setting off the fire, which caused only minor injuries at the second-largest refinery in California.
The board has also criticized the refinery for failing to shut the unit down when it sent firefighters on August 6 to try and find the leak.
California's worker safety regulator the California Occupational Safety & Health Division (Cal/OSHA) fined Chevron $963,000 on January 30 for 25 violations of worker safety regulations.
Holmstrom praised Cal/OSHA as better than many state safety regulators, but said it was one of three agencies with regulatory authority over the plant.
Cal/OSHA Chief Ellen Widess said the agency inspected Chevron's Los Angeles-area refinery in El Segundo, California, following the Richmond fire. The company was required to replace corroded pipe on a crude unit similar to the one in Richmond. The work was done in October.
Contra Costa County officials said they are ordering Chevron to pay for a full safety inspection of the refinery.
Refiners Exxon Mobil Corp, Royal Dutch Shell Plc and Valero Energy Corp, which operate plants in California, declined to discuss the recommended change in high-hazard facility regulation.
CSB is only an investigative agency, charged with seeking the root cause of chemical plant accidents and making recommendations to the industry. The board has no power to fine companies or issue regulations.
(Reporting by Braden Reddall and Erwin Seba. Editing by Andre Grenon and Lisa Shumaker)