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Bay Area oil refinery fire prompts air-quality concerns

August 7, 2012 | 12:33 pm

San Francisco Bay Area health officials are awaiting results from air samples collected near Richmond, where a  refinery fire spewed black toxic smoke across the area Monday, sending hundreds of residents to the hospital with respiratory problems.

Results will be made public as soon as they are available, according to a mid-morning update from Contra Costa County's health services agency. It was not immediately clear what was in the cloud of smoke, which rose thousands of feet above the refinery.

The fire broke out at the Chevron refinery's No. 4 Crude Unit about 6:15 p.m. Monday, officials said, and was extinguished early Tuesday morning, although a "small controlled burn" continued to reduce pressure in the damaged area.

The blaze prompted Contra Costa County health officials to issue a "shelter-in-place" order for Richmond, North Richmond and San Pablo, which were lifted just after 11 p.m. Monday, about the same time refinery officials announced the blaze had been contained.

About 180 people were admitted at Doctors Medical Center in nearby San Pablo between 7 p.m. Monday and 8 a.m. Tuesday, according to hospital spokeswoman Remy Goldsmith. Patients complained of symptoms including respiratory problems and eye irritation, and most were released after being seen.

A second wave of residents came to the hospital Tuesday morning, Goldsmith said. Hospital officials "expect, and are prepared for, a high demand at the hospital throughout the day."

The Richmond Medical Center treated more than 200 people with respiratory concerns as of Tuesday morning but had yet to admit any patients.

Three refinery employees suffered minor injuries in the incident and were treated at an on-site clinic, Chevron said. All other employees and contractors were safely accounted for.

The blaze also prompted a health advisory for nearby El Cerrito and a warning from the Oakland Police Department for residents in the north part of Oakland Hills.

Refinery manager Nigel Hearne, at a news conference Monday night, apologized to the community "for the fire and the smoke."

"Our primary focus is the safety and well-being of our employees and the community," he said.

Chevron officials planned to meet with community members at the Richmond Memorial Auditorium at 6 p.m. to discuss the incident.

The fire isn't the first to have occurred at the refinery, which is the third-largest in the state, the San Francisco Chronicle reported. In January 2007, a pump seal failed, sparking a blaze that burned for 10 hours. Another explosion injured several workers about a decade ago.

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— Kate Mather

Follow Kate Mather on Twitter or Google+.

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