Blaze shuts Chevron Bay Area refinery


A fire that shut Chevron Corporation's Richmond plant, the second-largest refinery in California, was extinguished early today as fears of a months-long closure caused a 25-cent spike in regional petrol prices.

The fire that spewed flames and a column of smoke high above the densely populated industrial suburb of east San Francisco Bay shortly after 6pm local time on Monday was contained by 11pm and then extinguished, Chevron said. Officials have allowed a small controlled burn to continue, the firm said.

As traders recalled a similar fire on the same unit in 2007 that left the plant mostly idle for over three months, Los Angeles benchmark petrol rates spiked nearly 25 cents, driving up the price of the nation's costliest car fuel and delivering a margin boost for competing refiners who may rev up rates. Diesel premiums rose 6 cents from Monday, brokers said.

The 245,000-barrels-per-day plant, which accounts for one-eighth of California's refining capacity, was reported to be completely shut down, and could remain so for up to three months, trade sources estimated. It was in the midst of marking its 110th anniversary this summer.

"Safety officials are allowing a small controlled burn as a safety measure to reduce pressure. This is helping to ensure more hydrocarbons don't escape," Chevron spokesman Lloyd Avram said.

An order for more than 100,000 nearby residents to remain indoors had been lifted, and local transit stations had reopened, authorities said. About 200 people have sought medical help, complaining of respiratory problems, the San Pablo, California-based Doctors Medical Centre said.

In Richmond, where residents have long lived in the shadow of one of the oldest refineries in the United States, some wondered if it would sharpen debate between residents, who worry about the environmental impact of the plant, and politicians who often seek more tax revenues for the declining industrial city.

"Where is everyone?" asked Mohammed Abolghasem, the Iranian-born owner of Cafe Altura in nearby Point Richmond, as he looked across the street at a bar that was closed early on Monday evening while sirens blared and helicopters swirled overhead.

Abolghasem said that when he was growing up in Iran everyone knew not to live near refineries, and he was now wondering whether he should move. "I love living in this city," he said. "It's beautiful. But next to a refinery, what do you expect?"

Richmond mayor Gayle McLaughlin said she would seek a full investigation by Chevron and independent sources.