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On eve of Richmond refinery fire anniversary, Chevron pleads no contest to labor charges

One year ago today, a pipe that was badly thinned by corrosion leaked gas and then burst at the Chevron refinery in Richmond, Calif., igniting a fire that nearly engulfed 19 workers and sent a plume of smoke through the region. An additional 15,000 people went to hospitals complaining of breathing problems. The fire burned for more than a day and could be seen more than 35 miles away.

Cal/OSHA issued a $1 million fine to Chevron in the wake of the explosion, but the company is appealing.

Yesterday, the company pleaded no contest to six criminal charges stemming from the incident. As part of the deal, Chevron agreed to pay $2 million in fines and restitution and accept additional oversight and inspection of its operations during a 3 1/2-year probation period, authorities told the San Francisco Chronicle.  

The misdemeanor charges, alleging violations of California’s health and labor codes, were filed Monday by the Contra Costa County district attorney and the state attorney general after an investigation of last year’s fire, the Chronicle reported. Four of the counts accuse Chevron of violating labor standards, such as using deficient equipment, failing to prevent nonemergency personnel from entering the emergency area, failing to implement an effective program to protect employees from imminent hazard, and failing to require appropriate personal protective equipment.  

The company agreed to pay a fine of $1.28 million and to contribute $145,000 to RichmondBuild, a public-private partnership that seeks to train workers for high-paying jobs in the fields of construction and renewable energy.

Andres Soto, an organizer in Richmond for the advocacy group Communities for a Better Environment, told the Chronicle that the fine was “just a minor cost of doing business” for the company, adding, “Only when we start holding corporate directors and managers responsible for the corporation’s behavior will we see a change in culture.”

Soto is absolutely correct. Chevron’s fine is a drop in the bucket for the deep-pocketed energy titan.

Last year, Chevron, the second-largest U.S. oil company, ranked second of the Fortune 500’s most profitable companies, raking in an astounding $26.2 billion in 2012.  

The company earned a $5.37 billion profit last quarter, a disappointing quarter at that. Its profit was down 26 percent from last year due to lower oil prices and- get this- maintenance work at some refineries (cough, Richmond, cough).

While oil and gas is clearly a very profitable industry, it is also one of the most dangerous. Nationally, oil and gas workers die on the job at a rate seven times the national average across all industries, National COSH explained in its Workers’ Memorial Day report in April.  

Yet, workers continue to rush to jobs in the oil and gas industry, despite the risks, largely because of the compensation, which can bring in more than $2,000 a week.

Workers in the energy sector- toiling away in unsafe conditions for modest compensation- pay the toll.

National COSH, along with its new associate member, the Equality State Policy Center in Casper, Wyo., will continue to monitor the energy sector and advocate for reforms to improve energy workers’ health and safety.