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A look inside Chevron’s Richmond refinery

By: Rachel Waldholz, Richmond Confidential

The 2,900-acre Chevron refinery complex has been a familiar backdrop to locals since it was built in the early 1900s — but few have ever had a chance to look behind the curtain. Given the opportunity on Saturday, 425 people — many of them the families of Chevron employees, curious about the place their family-members work — turned out to tour the refinery during the company’s second annual Community Tour Day.

Visitors gathered in a parking lot off Castro Street, where they were greeted with balloons, candy, hand puppets for kids, information on Chevron’s Renewal Project and postcards of refinery workers through the ages – and asked to leave behind all bags and cameras, for security reasons.

The tour was conducted entirely by bus. Tour guides pointed out the stages in the refining process, from the moment crude oil arrives on tankers — most from the North Slope of Alaska and the Middle East –to the time the refinery ships out its main products: 250,000 barrels a day of gasoline, diesel, jet fuel, propane and butane, plus lubricants, exported via pipeline, trucks, or rail. The refinery, the largest of five in the Bay Area, produces most of the jet fuel used at area airports and roughly one quarter of the gasoline produced in the Bay Area, according to a guide.

Fatima Alleyne and her sons Joshua, Micah and Ari, enjoyed Chevron’s Community Tour Day.

Behind the gates, the buses wound through a labyrinth of silver and maroon tanks, columns, and, above all, pipes, with puffs of white steam erupting at intervals. The facility has some 5,000 miles of piping, testament to how the refining process has evolved since the refinery opened in 1902, when the refinery “was basically a series of pots,” said tour guide Tim Burchfield, a process engineer at the site. The original facility essentially boiled oil to separate it, said Burchfield, making kerosene and home heating oil.

In the modern refinery, the principle is the same, though the process has become more complex. More than one visitor compared the modern process to a distillery. Crude oil is first heated in a column to separate it by density: propane and butane at top, then gasoline, jet fuel, diesel, and at the bottom, gas oils. It is then “cracked,” or broken down into smaller molecules, stripped of sulfur, and blended with additives into usable fuel. In between refining stages, the oil – called intermediate hydrocarbons – is stored in the maroon tanks that cover the hillside above the refinery – the “tank farm,” Burchfield called it, noting that he’d worked at 15 different refineries, and this one is the prettiest he’d ever seen.

Burchfield explained some of the plant’s more iconic features, including the tall flares that residents can see from a distance. When locals see flares, it means something in the refinery is starting up, shutting down, or malfunctioning, he said. The large white spheres, which are synonymous for many with oil refineries, hold propane and butane – light materials that must be kept under pressure to remain liquid. Spherical shapes have more integrity than cylinders to hold that pressure, Burchfield said.

The buses also drove past the “biopond,” a blue, bubbling stretch of water that looks as sci-fi as its name. The pond is part of the refinery’s wastewater treatment system, where water is aerated and treated with microorganisms.

Chevron opened the gates of its Richmond refinery on Saturday, offering community members a rare glimpse inside.

Visitors came for a variety of reasons. Norm Walters, who first worked at the refinery in1941, came with 10 men from El Sobrante United Methodist Church to see how the refinery had changed since his days as a machinist’s assistant. “It’s so much cleaner now,” Walters said.

Many of the visitors said they were curious to get beyond the gates and put names and purposes to the familiar skyline of towers, tanks and pipes.

Fatima Alleyne, a Richmond resident and graduate student at UC Berkeley, brought her four kids to check out the plant.

“I just wanted to see what’s going on, let them see what’s in the community,” Alleyne said. Her son Ari was celebrating his eighth birthday on Saturday, and she said he loved science and dinosaurs. “I wanted to expose him to different areas of science and technology.” Ari wasn’t much of a fan of the tour – “It was kinda boring,” he said – but the hard hats and hand puppets at the end were a hit.

Chevron employees also took advantage of a rare opportunity to show their families the refinery.

Yolanda Weinmann’s husband is a procurement manager who was doing Saturday duty handing out goody bags to visitors. Eric Weinmann has worked for Chevron for 23 years, but Yolanda said she has never been inside the refinery. The facility was always “so mysterious,” she said, so she took advantage of the chance to bring her sons David and Aaron to look inside.

There were very few workers about, which is usual, the tour guide Burchfield said. Though the refinery employs some 1,300 people — another 1,300 are employed in other Chevron businesses on the Richmond campus — very few work outdoors. Most of the plant is automated, controlled by workers monitoring operations on computer screens.

Visitors also saw the foundations laid two years ago for a new hydrogen plant, the centerpiece of the halted renewal project, which Chevron is now applying to restart. Distillation columns and vessels lay out by the road. The equipment has been lying still since construction was halted by a court order in 2009.

Written by Globe Newspapers

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