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Thousands file claims after Chevron refinery fire

By Paul Elias
Associated Press / August 11, 2012
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RICHMOND, Calif.—Several thousand Richmond residents have filed legal claims against Chevron Corp., seeking compensation for a refinery fire that fouled the region's air for hours and sent more than 4,000 people to seek medical care for breathing problems and irritated eyes.

Hundreds of residents showed up at a makeshift claim center in Richmond on Friday, and many more submitted claims throughout the week by calling a special hotline Chevron established after Monday's explosion and fire. The company said a total of about 3,800 people had submitted claims through Friday afternoon.

Most of the claims appear to be asking for modest amounts, reflecting the fact that there have been no reports of serious injury and nearly all seeking medical care were treated and released after a few hours in the hospital.

"It's not about the money," said Chanel Harris, who was seeking reimbursement for the cost of taking her three young children to the emergency room of the nearby Kaiser Hospital. "It's about holding Chevron accountable."

Harris spent about an hour in line and another 10 minutes talking to a claims adjuster inside the Nevin Community Center in Richmond. She said she won't know how much she's seeking until Kaiser sends a bill.

Harris and others with medical insurance who sought care immediately after the incident are expecting reimbursements for their deductibles, drugs and other expenses.

Monica Morales, 26, waited for about two hours with her three children ages 6 weeks to 7 years old to file her claim. She's seeking about $500.

Others were told by a Chevron representative to expect even less, perhaps as little as $25 for a Kaiser copay.

"We are going to pay all appropriate and reasonable expenses," Chevron spokesman Sean Comey said.

Others, like Percy Gallon who showed up without receipts and other proof of expenses, were told they faced an uphill battle to receive anything.

"It's disappointing," said Gallon, a 61-year-old Richmond resident who said he lived out of the area when others received payments of about $1,000 each after a fire at the refinery in the 1990s. "I want in on this one."

The Chevron center in this gritty, blue-collar town about 15 miles northeast of San Francisco will remain open from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday, and from 8 a.m. until noon Saturday. Handling claims face-to-face is a new approach for Chevron, which has had dozens of accidents small and big in the more than 100 years its refinery has been located in Richmond.

"It's all part of our attempts at community outreach," said Chevron spokeswoman Melissa Ritchie. She added the company typically processed claims on the phone after previous accidents.

Richmond lawyer Nick Haney, who had long lines outside his office earlier in the week, said he expects to represent about 3,000 residents with legal claims. Haney said he hopes to negotiate a settlement with the company before filing lawsuits.

Mike Meadows, a Walnut Creek lawyer who has helped settle lawsuits for tens of millions of dollars against Chevron and other refineries because of previous mishaps, said he isn't participating in this incident because of the expected low payouts.

"The liability is pretty clear," Meadows said. "And I'm sure the victims showed up to the doctors with legitimate complaints." But he said most of the health problems caused by the fire likely were minor irritants rather than significant injuries.

The Bay Area Air Quality Management District said it was still investigating the fire's effects on the region's air quality.

"While air samples taken near the facility detected normal background levels of toxic air contaminants, there was the potential for significant smoke in the area that impacted residents in the downwind neighborhoods," the district said in a statement Thursday. "The likely source of health impacts from the fire is particulate matter from smoke."

The district said it found one dangerous chemical, acrolein, above safe levels in the air, although safe levels of the chemical often are exceeded in the Bay Area. Acrolein can cause runny noses and irritate eyes.

In all, five separate investigations will be done to determine the cause and effects of the Richmond refinery fire.

The same U.S. Chemical Safety Board team that investigated the oil spill in the Gulf Of Mexico, for one, was standing by with state and company inspectors waiting for structural and environmental tests to see if it was safe to enter the unit.

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