A fire at one of the largest refineries in the U.S. spewed thick black smoke over cities in the San Francisco Bay area, sending more than 200 residents to hospitals complaining of breathing problems early Tuesday.
The blaze at the plant in Richmond, about 10 miles (16 kilometers) northeast of San Francisco, was contained by late Monday, although it was not immediately known when the flames would be extinguished, said company spokeswoman Heather Kulp.
The refinery is the largest producer of base oils on the U.S. West Coast, processing up to 240,000 barrels of crude oil a day, according to the company’s website. The Chevron Richmond Refinery makes high-quality products that include gasoline, jet fuel, diesel fuel and lubricants.
The company said Monday it did not know yet whether production would be affected.
A shelter-in-place order for local communities was lifted shortly before midnight Monday. Residents had been told to stay inside, turn off air conditioners and fans and cover cracks around doors with tape or damp towels.
Contra Costa County hazardous materials program director Randy Sawyer told the San Jose Mercury News early Tuesday that small amounts of material were still burning, but smoke was not leaving the refinery property.
Residents said they heard loud blasts around the time the fire broke out Monday evening, although Chevron officials could not confirm those reports.
Daniela Rodriguez told the Contra Costa Times newspaper that she heard a “big boom” about the time the fire started. The 23-year-old said about an hour passed before she received an automated call from the county to remain indoors.
“I was feeling kind of nauseous and light-headed (from the smell),” she told the newspaper.
Doctors Medical Center in San Pablo, a town near the refinery, said about 200 people had sought help and more patients were arriving. Kaiser’s Richmond Medical Center said several dozen people came to the emergency room complaining of shortness of breath, but none was seriously ill.
A diesel leak at the refinery’s No. 4 Crude Unit ignited shortly after crews were evacuated from the area, Nigel Hearne, manager of the refinery, told The San Francisco Chronicle. Flames shot out from at least two refinery stacks.
One employee suffered a minor injury and was receiving first aid, Chevron officials said.
A fire at the refinery in January 2007 injured two workers and spewed low levels of sulfur dioxide and other toxins into the air. County officials said then that it was not enough to harm the health of nearby residents.
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