RODEO (KPIX 5) -- A KPIX 5 original report is revealing new plans underway to build more petrochemical tanks inside Phillips 66's Rodeo refinery, next to the facility where two storage tanks exploded and burned last week. Refineries have much stricter safety standards than tank farms. But neighbors say it is still a catastrophe waiting to happen.
Nancy Rieser wasn't home when a huge tank exploded at the NuStar Energy fuel storage facility just half a mile from where she lives in Crockett. But trying to wind her way back on country side roads after Interstate 80 shut down she realized just how vulnerable her community is. "We are surrounded by parkland on three sides. I was really really worried about the wildfire potential," said Rieser.
Rieser said the close call re-ignited her fear of a potential future danger. Phillips 66, the refinery right next to Nustar, wants to build a propane and butane recovery facility to make and sell its petroleum byproducts.
The expansion project includes six high-pressure storage tanks, a loading rack and two new rail lines to deliver the propane and butane to the refinery's marine terminal for export.
According to U.S. Geological Survey maps, the proposed location of the new tanks appears to be on an earthquake liquefaction zone, ground that would be especially vulnerable in a big earthquake.
Rieser says the timing of the NuStar explosion the day after a 4.5 earthquake rocked the East Bay has everyone in town on edge. "It was at the forefront on everybody's mind, NuStar supposedly only had ethanol," said Rieser. "Propane and butane, they are different animals. Experts have likened the explosion to a small thermonuclear bomb."
Rieser started a grassroots neighborhood group that's been fighting the propane project. It presented to the county a description from an expert on what the most dangerous kind of propane explosion, called a Boiling Liquid Expanding Vapor Explosion or BLEVE would look like.
A BLEVE at a liquid petroleum gas tank farm outside Mexico City in 1984 killed close to 600 people and severely burned thousands of others.
The Phillips 66 refinery sits right between the towns of Rodeo and Crockett. That size explosion would theoretically wipe out whole neighborhoods. Community groups brought this up in their lawsuits and stopped the project in 2015. But we've learned it's back on the table.
"I understand their concerns," said Contra Costa County Supervisor Karen Mitchoff, who voted for the propane recovery project when it was approved in 2015. "I feel comfortable with the safety procedures and controls that are in place," she said.
Mitchoff pointed out the county has one of the strictest industrial safety ordinances in the nation. In his final ruling on the lawsuit filed by environmentalists, a judge upheld the environmental impact report analysis that the proposed tanks will not create additional hazards.
"What the judge threw out and asked us to redo was the part relative to air emissions and that is where we are right now," said Mitchoff.
When asked whether the incident at NuStar changed her thought in any way, Mitchoff said she keeps an open mind and new information could come forward.
Phillips 66 declined our request for an interview, but Bob Brown with the Western States Petroleum Association says California refineries are uniquely safe. "These are some of the strongest safety standards anywhere in the world," said Brown. "So, in terms of managing risk, I don't think anyone does it any better."
If an earthquake larger than a 4.5 strikes on the nearby Hayward fault? Brown's response: "Well I think it remains to be seen where that is."
But Greg Karras, a scientist with Communities for a Better Environment - one of the groups that successfully sued to stop the propane project - isn't waiting to see.
"The fact is that there is new information. Some of it everybody just saw and felt, and breathed," said Karras. "These are down on the Bay, they are on bay fill, they are in a liquefaction zone. This is a catastrophe waiting to happen."
Rieser hopes this time the county gets the message and stops the tanks from being built. But she predicts it's going to be another long, drawn-out battle. "The county is not protecting our health, our lives, they are protecting the bottom line of the fossil fuel industry," said Rieser. "Who are they serving? Us? Or the refineries? I think we know the answer."
Contra Costa County's Department of Conservation and Development sent us the following statement:
In February 2015, the Board of Supervisors approved an environmental impact report (EIR) and use permit for a proposed propane recovery project at the Phillips 66 refinery in Rodeo. The project would allow Phillips 66 to recover propane and butane that are byproducts of its existing refining process and then sell the propane and butane, rather than burn those byproducts as heat and steam for the refinery.
The EIR includes a comprehensive analysis of the risks associated with the possible release of hazardous materials from the project. The EIR notes that "the operational risks of the proposed Project are the same or reduced when compared to the existing (baseline) risk of the Refinery." The EIR concludes: "All of the release scenarios analyzed have an improbable probability of occurrence."
In March 2017, a Superior Court judge upheld most of the EIR prepared for the project, including the hazards analysis. The Superior Court judge rejected the argument that the project would increase the probability of an accident. The judge also concluded that the EIR correctly determined that hydrogen use would not increase as a result of the project and correctly described the project's impacts on greenhouse gases. The judge directed the County to recalculate the number of railroad trips that would result from the project and prepare a new analysis of locomotive emissions resulting from the rail transportation of propane and butane.
In March 2018, the Court of Appeal upheld the Superior Court judge's ruling, including the ruling on the hazards analysis.
County staff is working to revise the EIR. Once the EIR is completed, the public and any interested party will have an opportunity to review and comment. The EIR will be presented to the Board of Supervisors for consideration when the revisions are complete.
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