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Chevron fire: Investigators probe possible pipe corrosion

August 11, 2012 | 12:12 pm

Federal investigators probing a fire at a major Chevron oil refinery in Northern California have narrowed their focus to possible corrosion in a decades-old pipe that underwent inspection late last year but was never replaced.

The Times reported that gasoline prices rocketed on news of a fire Monday at the 110-year-old plant in Richmond, the state's third-biggest refinery. Although the refinery is on the shore of San Rafael Bay, north of San Francisco, it's an important fuel provider for Southern California.

The parts of the refinery that were not affected by the fire are again operating, but Chevron hasn't said how much fuel the refinery is able to produce.

Saturday morning, the Associated Press reported that investigators with the U.S. Chemical Safety Board believe the fire was caused by a failing pipe that caught fire.

The blaze sent up odorous black smoke that could be seen for miles. Nearby residents were told to seek shelter indoors, and by Tuesday evening, more than 900 people had shown up at area emergency rooms complaining about respiratory and other problems.

The Associated Press reported that investigators were still trying to determine why Chevron didn't replace the pipe when it conducted a major inspection in November 2011. AP said that inspection led Chevron to replace another section of pipe connected to the one that failed.

Investigators also told the AP the fire exploded when a vapor cloud ignited, endangering more than a dozen workers in the immediate vicinity.

“We agree that this is a serious incident that warrants thorough investigation,” Sean Comey, a  Chevron company spokesman, told the wire service. “We are cooperating with all regulatory agencies and are committed to better understanding the root cause of this incident.”

As officials continued their investigation, pump prices for regular gasoline statewide rose more than a nickel a gallon from Wednesday to Thursday, according to the Automobile Club of Southern California. Experts say price jumps of more than 2 cents in a 24-hour period are uncommon.

Economists and consumer advocates said the Chevron fire could be a big blow to California consumers who had already begun to rein in their spending.

Speaking to The Times earlier this week, Patrick DeHaan, senior petroleum analyst for the price-watch websites run by GasBuddy.com said, “It could get very ugly, very fast."

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--Ronald D. White, Maria L. La Ganga, Matt Stevens and the Associated Press

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