MARTINEZ, Calif. (CN) - A total of 4,296 people joined a lawsuit against Chevron for the August 2012 refinery explosion that sent poisonous fumes into homes and businesses across the North Bay, blotting out the afternoon sun.
The refinery explosion, caused by a gas leak, burned for more than a day and could be seen more than 35 miles away.
The plaintiffs say in the complaint that the explosion was caused by Chevron's "despicable, intentional, reckless and grossly negligent, and probably criminal conduct."
The plaintiffs - all residents of Richmond, San Pablo, Hercules, Pinole and other cities northeast of San Francisco - claim Chevron knew as early as November 2011 that an 8-inch pipe at the Richmond refinery had corroded and needed repair.
But Chevron "chose not to replace the compromised pipe but rather placed it back online and recertified its fitness for five additional years," according to the complaint in Contra Costa County Court.
Chevron's century-old Richmond refinery is California's second-largest. The company, whose headquarters are in nearby Alameda County, employs nearly 10,000 Californians and is the largest corporation in the state.
At 4:15 p.m. on Aug. 6, 2012 Chevron workers discovered a leak in a 5-foot section of a 200-foot-long pipe that carried 1,100-degree hot gas oil.
"Rather than immediately shutting down the leaking unit, Chevron knowingly and deliberately decided to continue operations," the complaint states. "Defendant Chevron knew, based on its history of toxic releases and prior lawsuits around the world for personal injuries, property and environmental damages resulting from its toxic releases, that its failure to immediately shut down and stop production would cause a continuing release of toxic cancer-causing pollutants, which would harm plaintiffs and all of the residents of Richmond and the adjoining communities of San Pablo, Hercules, Pinole and others. Chevron further intentionally elected not to notify and inform the city of Richmond authorities, including the fire department, of the brewing, impending disaster as Chevron was knowingly taking the chance of parachuting the deadly toxins on the plaintiffs and the public in general. After approximately two hours of consistent leaking, Chevron then decided to remove the pipe's insulation. Upon removal, defendants discovered the existence of a major rupture in the pipe's integrity. Yet they still did not shut down, nor did they call for help and still tried to hide the problem. At approximately 6:15 p.m., with the buildup of gas from the uncurtailed leak as well as a release of highly flammable and volatile hydrocarbons, Crude Unit Four ignited into a ferocious fireball and subsequent gigantic plume cloud of toxic smoke."
Lead plaintiff Paula Shields claims Chevron should have called a level three "shelter in place" warning two hours before the explosion, but could be bothered to alert Contra Costa County officials only after the black mushroom cloud - visible across 10 counties - blotted out the late afternoon sun.
"The warning instructed residents to sequester and lock themselves in their homes and to seal all windows, doors and fireplace flues. This warning remained in effect until late in the evening, approximately three hours after the initial warning was sounded. Many of the plaintiffs in this action as well as others failed to receive this warning call. Not only did many not receive the warning, but by then the toxins had already entered and settled inside their homes, therefore in effect sealing the poisons in with them," according to the complaint.
Officials' reaction also doomed people to breathe Chevron's toxic fumes, according to the complaint. BART officials closed the Richmond, El Cerrito del Norte and El Cerrito Plaza transit stations, stranding thousands of travelers and trapping them inside the Richmond city limits. Meanwhile, CalTrans closed the westbound Richmond-San Rafael Bridge - the nearest escape route to the clean air of Marin County.
In addition to five injured Chevron employees, 14,000 Richmond-area residents sought treatment in emergency rooms, according to the complaint. Thousands more chose not to wait for hours and are not included in the triage numbers.
Federal, state and local officials held a public meeting on Aug. 27, 2012 to allow outraged residents to vent their frustrations and to let them know that "further investigations were being undertaken," the complaint states.
The very next day, Chevron released another plume of black smoke - "burnoff" from its attempt to stop the 3-week-old hydrocarbons leak, according to the complaint.
Chevron representatives said at the time of the explosion that the ruptured pipeline had been inspected regularly at 19 monitoring locations - just not the component that failed.
But a month later, officials acknowledged that high-temperature sulfidation corrosion of the carbon steel pipe, combined with the pipe's low silicone content that "had been somehow overlooked as part of an overall monitoring program on that particular pipe," caused the rupture and explosion.
"Chevron's incredible and ludicrous claim that its inspectors on 19 different occasions had not inspected, 'recognized or understood' a five-foot section of the 200-foot pipe where the breach happened is a 'cover-up' for more serious, intentional, reckless and probably criminal conduct, which has caused and continues to cause harm, damages, injuries and losses to plaintiffs for many years. Much of Chevron's illegal conduct has just been discovered since the investigations surrounding the Aug. 6, 2012 toxic explosions and releases," the complaint states.
California last week fined Chevron $1 million and issued 25 citations, including 11 "willful serious" and 12 lesser "serious" violations related to the explosion. The fine is the largest in Cal-OSHA's history.
Chevron said it will appeal.
"Although we acknowledge that we failed to live up to our own expectations in this incident, we do not agree with several of the Cal-OSHA findings and its characterization of some of the alleged violations as 'willful,'" Chevron said in a statement.
It was not the first time the Richmond refinery belched toxic smoke into the Bay Area sky. The plaintiffs cite 14 incidents since 1989.
They claim that last year the EPA's criminal enforcement began investigating whether Chevron has been circumventing monitoring equipment and burning off pollutants in the atmosphere for years, in violation of a federal court order.
"Upon information and belief, Chevron fashioned a pipe inside its refinery that routed hydrocarbon gases around monitoring equipment and allowed them to be burned off without officials knowing about it. Some of the gases escaped into the air, but because the company didn't record them, investigators have no way of being certain of the level of pollution exposure to plaintiffs and thousands of people who live downwind from the plant. Defendant Chevron asserts that no dangerous emissions were sent through the diverted pipe, and of course conveniently there is no way to prove or disprove this claim. However, no one diverts a pipe from a court-ordered monitoring system unless there is reason to do so," the 4,296 plaintiffs say.
They continue: "Defendants' despicable, intentional, reckless and grossly negligent, and probably criminal conduct amounts to a willful and conscious disregard for the rights and safety of the public, including plaintiffs. Accordingly, as defendants acted with oppression and malice, plaintiffs seek to recover damages against defendants in order to both make plaintiffs whole as well as to ensure that defendants act not only in their own pecuniary interests, but in the interest of the safety and wellbeing of their immediate neighbors as well as those living downwind who rely on clean, healthy air for their families and community. It is the right of every citizen to expect to be able to breathe freely and without fear. Yet the community of Richmond has the highest rate of asthma in the country and one of the highest rates of cancer. Chevron has a duty to the community and to these plaintiffs to conduct its business safely and with attention to the wellbeing of this community and these plaintiffs. It has shown its contempt for the plaintiffs by its unwillingness to operate safely and needs to be punished for its willful disregard for public safety and therefore owes the community and plaintiffs not only damages for the destruction of their health and property but also punitive damages."
The plaintiffs say they suffered breathing problems and asthma-like symptoms because of the toxic cloud. Many were afflicted with a rash over their bodies, and all of them fear they will develop cancer from breathing the toxic fumes.
"Toxic chemicals hailing from Chevron's refinery have been found consistently in the indoor air of homes in Richmond. One hundred and four toxic chemicals were detected inside the homes. Health studies have linked these chemicals with respiratory and cardiovascular problems," the complaint states.
"Chevron has caused severe damage to every one of these plaintiffs and similarly to all of the plaintiffs, both in their physical and mental health. Physical symptoms have lingered for weeks and months after the Aug. 6, 2012 disastrous toxic plume that rained down on their community, coating their cars and homes with layers of black soot, ruining their gardens, killing plants and pets. By the time plaintiffs were able to shelter in place, the toxic stew had already invaded their houses and apartments, and they were breathing the same poisonous air inside that had already severely impacted their health outside. Symptoms for all the plaintiffs have been similar and severe for all, life threatening for some. For the ones who were closest to the plume it has been an ongoing struggle to recover, especially those who have asthma, added to the damage from previous fires and emissions. The symptoms range from serious breathing problems including shortness of breath, difficulty swallowing, dry and painful or itchy throat, dangerous aggravation of asthma, eye infections, dry and reddened eyes, blurred vision, sinus problems, nose bleeds, nausea, vomiting, chest pain, stomach aches, ongoing fatigue, skin rashes, blistering eruptions, itching of the entire body, among others, all the way to the most horrible and long-term injury, the fear of contracting cancer and the fear of their children contracting cancer and other debilitating ailments. These plaintiffs are rightfully angry and suffer from ongoing sleeplessness, worry and anxiety when the next disaster will be rained upon them by Chevron," the complaint states.
They seek damages on a dozen counts, including negligence, battery, private and public nuisance, unfair business practices, intentional misrepresentations and strict liability for ultra-hazardous activities. They also want Chevron ordered to install a citywide warning system, refinery shutdown equipment to prevent fires and toxic releases, health clinics in and around Richmond, and annual testing of the city's water, soil and air.
Contra Costa County, which is home to several other oil refineries, already has a community warning system - which critics claim sends out spotty alerts, silent alarms and telephone warnings hours after a catastrophic event takes place.
According to a report on Z6Mag.com, Richmond city councilman Tom Butt received his warning call about the Chevron fire at 9:30 p.m., three hours after the explosion.
"It's an absolute disaster. It's never functioned properly. The last time this happened in 2007, there were all kinds of criticism then, and the people responsible were pledging to get them all fixed. Some of the same problems arose, and some new problems arose," Butt said.
The plaintiffs are represented by Charles A. Bonner and A. Cabral Bonner of Sausalito.