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The Richmond Fire

Richmond is burning. Courtesy Stephen Schiller via Flickr.

I saw on MSNBC this a.m. that SOCal's Richmond refinery went off again last night, in the spectacular way to which its neighbors are becoming accustomed. Nearby residents are quoted as saying they call the place “thunderdome, because when it blows, it really blows...” I would've liked to comment on their article, having had direct experience in that refinery in the late 60s, but in order to take part in the discussion, one is required to get aboard facebook, which I avoid studiously. I'd like to relate what I learned in my time there, and thought you might be interested, if not really amused.

In '66, '67, I worked in the “ISOMAX” unit there, their newest, showcase plant for squeezing the last drop of fuel-oils out of what had been “waste” (asphalt). This high-tech, multi-billion dollar plant produced feed-stocks for jet fuels and diesel only, and was characteristic of all petroleum refineries then; expansions of refining capacities everywhere were NOT for the production of gasolines. I was among the operating crew which started the ISOMAX up on its maiden voyage, and endured about a year and a half before I bailed out. My fellow operators were mostly a great group of workers, competent and attentive to the workings of the machinery in their charge. The unit came on line at design capacity (input of a couple hundred thousand barrels a day, and change), to our satisfaction as operators, and to the approval of the “big wheels” running the show. It was then decided by the accountants (the bean counters who actually run Chevron) to take the engineers who'd designed the plant, and place them in supervisory positions to oversee it — and to order them to turn up production to 300% of its design capacity. One needs neither a crystal ball to know this would have catastrophic consequences. If any doubt the folly of such “management,” I suggest that being physically in such an environment when it's being so grossly over-revved would quickly clear your mind, even on an “uneventful” day. Large-diameter steam lines, heated petroleum pipes, furnace-fuels, etc., slamming the ground (instead of resting there); unbearable noise, vibration, etc., all quite obviously over-stressed the machinery and the people working there.

It didn't take long to make the ISOMAX blow, the first time (this can be “news” only to those not expecting it). In the control room on the South Side (one of two main ones in the ISOMAX), we were standing about, drinking coffee, monitoring the meters on the walls, listening to the plant scream, crash and roar outside, when the concrete slab floor dropped from under our feet, what seemed like several inches, and we were slammed with an explosion as by a lightning strike, or heavy artillery incoming. Dropping everything, quickly scanning the controls panels, we looked outside to see the whole North Side engulfed in flames, the fire not 300 yards away, and reaching up a good 45 degrees of our field of view. We quickly took emergency actions in our own sections, and raced to see what was going on, what was needed in the north end. That whole section of the plant was afire, and most all the rest of the refinery was mobilized to try to control it. Miraculously, no one was seriously hurt, but it took a couple of days to get the disaster under control and begin to find what had gone wrong.

A small drain-cock on a high pressure line had suffered a vibration-induced stress fracture, releasing hydrogen gas from the break into the surrounding equipment. This hydrogen, as part of the “process materials,” was under some 3000psi, and at something like 1500 degrees F. It acted like a huge cutting torch, knifing through anything in its path, obliterating and igniting lines large and small carrying oils, gasses, steam, control and utility air, solvents, communications, everything, in a second; presto: Big Fucking Disaster!

It took months to clean up the mess, repair the destruction, thermally re-temper the high-pressure vessels and lines, and get the plant back on line. SOCal, in its infinitesimal wisdom, continued to operate the plant way over its design capacity. This “management strategy,” focused solely on cash and prizes, completely disregards concerns for environmental and human safety, and even for the coherence of their own refining apparatus; just the way they do business, chalking the added expense up to the business cost, and charging those additional costs to the consumer...you and me.

I've told this story lots of times, usually adding a prediction that it will certainly happen again, and often. Several times, now, over the intervening years, that prediction has been proven accurate, and I've been in the dubious position of being able to say, “I told you so, goddamit!” This is not a kind of prescience I'd like on my resume, but hey...

There is considerable and ominous overlap between the petroleum refining business, and the Nuclear Power Mistake. Operators in both industries are usually members of the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers union, with similar kinds of training in largely identical control technologies. How is my experience then, and the ongoing congruence of OCAW's petro/nuke training and related technologies relevant to things like the meltdown at Three Mile Island, for instance? I'll tell you:

At the Three Mile disaster, the OCAW operator(s) saw the cooling-water level indicator showing that vessel to be over-full. He then concluded it was in fact too full, and shut off the incoming cooling water; Big Mistake, again. A well-trained operator will see a gauge reading maximum as indicating (1) too full, indeed, or (2) a false reading caused by the contents boiling, raising the float, and nearly empty. Obviously, one would need to be damned certain what in fact is going on in the process before taking any action whatever. The NY Academy of Science's study of that event contains input from some dozen experts from various fields, each of whom declares that tragedy “a learning experience.” Not one of these revered experts seemed to realize that the whole deal could probably have been averted by one well-trained and alert operator at the switch. Who was responsible for training and assigning these operators?

The large contractors who design, build, promote, and lobby for oil refineries are the same ones doing Nuclear Power: Bechtel; Babcock & Wilcox; Combustion Engineering; General Electric; Fluor; Honeywell; Hayward-Tyler; and many others in that rogues' gallery of corporate bandits, looting our economies, gutting our governments, killing off our life-support systems. In a Just World, these “job providers” would be indicted, charged, prosecuted, convicted, and “provided with jobs” cleaning up oil-spills, radiation contaminations, exhuming mass graves they've helped fill here and there around the world, and so on.

And if you're interested, I could teach you in about five minutes how to shut down a Nuclear reactor with the flip of one switch (providing all the fail-safe shutdown gear functions as it was designed to). This knowledge would be useful, I think, not as any sort of disruption of an essential energy source, but on the contrary, as the obvious, required move necessary for our own safety, and that of our Biosphere, and further generations.

I suggested this once, at the local PG&E office, in Fort. Bragg, and their response was considerably less than cordial. At least I tried.

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