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The Bakersfield Californian: Parts of refinery closed to find oil leak source

BY STACEY SHEPARD, Californian staff writer
e-mail: [email protected] | Monday, Jun 18 2007 10:35 PM
Last Updated: Monday, Jun 18 2007 10:41 PM

Portions of the Big West of California refinery have been shut down since Friday to identify the source of oil that has seeped into an underground water table over the past two weeks.

About 1,000 barrels of oil are believed to have been released from an underground pipeline at the Big West refinery, according to a hazardous materials report filed with the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services.

The leak is not a threat to public water supplies, according to county environmental health officials.

Preliminary reports from state water quality officials indicate the substance could be crude oil. The oil was first detected by refinery officials in a well near the facility’s tank farm, according to information in a letter to the refinery from the California Regional Water Quality Control Board.

The refinery shut down underground pipelines that run near the well Friday to test the lines for leaks.

But as of Monday evening, about 90 percent of the lines were tested and no leak had been discovered, said Gene Cotten, the refinery’s manager.

Cotten said he expected testing to be completed today.

The shutdown has reduced the refinery’s gasoline production by 30 percent to 40 percent since Friday, Cotten said. The refinery’s output makes up about 6 percent of the state’s diesel and 2 percent of its gasoline supply. That may sound marginal, but industry experts have said it’s significant because the state’s demand for transportation fuels grows at a rate of 1.5 percent annually.

County Environmental Health Director Matt Constantine called the incident “a significant event.”

“Our main concern now is to shut the pipes down and determine where the leak is occurring,” he said.

Officials with the water quality control board could not be reached for comment late Monday.

The refinery has been the focus of much public attention in recent months. Earlier this year, the company announced plans for a major expansion at the facility, located in a heavily urbanized area. The plan drew criticism from the public because it involved the use of hydrofluoric acid, a highly toxic chemical that most other refineries in the state have stopped using. When spilled, liquid hydrofluoric acid can form a toxic cloud that has been shown in studies to travel up to five miles from the location of the release.

Bending to pressure, refinery officials later said they would use a safer form of the chemical that contains an additive that suppresses the acid’s ability to vaporize.

In April, the refinery was cited by the county for venting potentially lethal gases into the air in late 2006. The gas migrated to nearby businesses and several residents living nearby reported getting ill, according to the county. The county alleged that the refinery failed to properly investigate the release. In the process, it was discovered the refinery hadn’t updated its safety plans in a timely manner. The refinery was also fined $15,000 by the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District for the release.

The refinery is owned by parent company Flying J, which acquired it from Shell in 2005.

A refinery has operated at the Rosedale Highway site since around the 1930s. Other releases of oil into the ground have happened in the past, when the refinery was under different ownership, according to the letter from the California Regional Water Quality Control Board

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