Company will clean up tar left behind by kerosene refinery
Thanks to leadership at the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board (Regional Water Board), Chevron Corporation will be cleaning up residual petroleum at a former refinery site it once owned at Alameda Point.
The true extent of the contamination is unknown, which is why Chevron is first taking soil samples at 43 spots around the open field next to the self-storage business near the intersection of West Oriskany Avenue and Skyhawk Street. The investigation work was announced in a Work Notice/Fact Sheet from the Regional Water Board. Work began on May 15 and will continue until May 26. Their findings will provide the basis for a cleanup plan.
The petroleum cleanup site was put on the shelf until now because the Navy and the City of Alameda figured that it was not causing any harm, therefore nothing had to be done until a developer purchased the lot. The Regional Water Board, which has sole regulatory authority over petroleum cleanup, instead wanted to close the books on this outstanding cleanup site.
For a brief period in American history, lighting for homes, businesses, and streets was provided by burning kerosene. The Pacific Coast Oil Company was founded in 1879 to cash in on that demand. Its refinery was located at what was then the western shoreline of Alameda.
In 1900, the company was purchased by Standard Oil of California, which later became Chevron. The long arm of today’s environmental liability laws has prompted Chevron to voluntarily undertake the cleanup of thick unrefined oil left at the site when the plant closed and moved to Richmond in 1903.
Subsequently, the area was covered with soil to raise the elevation for the Naval Air Station. The problem of the buried tarry material from the old refinery has been a can kicked down the road since the 1940s, when the Navy had dealt with the effects of buried tar and asphalt-type material on the road surface above.
“The refinery was removed upon completion of the Standard Oil refining facilities at Point Richmond,” stated the Initial Assessment Study of Naval Air Station, Alameda, California, April 1983.“Refinery waste and asphalt-type residue were dumped at the site, creating sufficient vapor pressure [from evaporating gases trapped under soil and pavement] to cause disturbance [i.e., buckling] of Navy-constructed surfacing in the 1940s. The problem was eventually solved by excavating an area approximately 30 feet square [30 feet by 30 feet] down to the old material, pouring a concrete slab over the entire area, and backfilling and resurfacing.”
The assessment concluded: “There has been no further trouble at this location; however, ‘black oil’ has been found during drilling in the area.”
On two separate occasions in 2002 and 2003, oil referred to as a “tar seep” appeared on the surface of the field. The Navy removed the surface contamination and placed steel plates over the two areas. In 2005, the Navy erected a fence around the field to prevent people from inadvertently stepping on oily soil.
The Navy’s July 2003 environmental cleanup newsletter, Alameda Point Focus, featured a wrap-up of all cleanup sites. Under “Former Oil Refinery – What’s Next” it noted, “Complete field investigations to determine the extent of remaining refinery wastes.”
Regional Water Board takes the lead on petroleum cleanup
Subsequent results from soil and groundwater investigations, however, did not satisfy the Regional Water Board, a state agency, which is the lead regulatory agency overseeing cleanup of petroleum contamination. Contrary to the City of Alameda’s position, waiting for a developer to deal with the problem was not acceptable to the board, even though both the Navy and the City had mistakenly assumed that it was, as shown in correspondence between the City and the Regional Water Board.
In 2017, some four years after this section of Alameda Point had been transferred to the City, the Regional Water Board ordered the City to produce a site management plan and a new groundwater analysis. “Although we anticipate your cooperation in this matter, failure to respond or a late response to this request could potentially subject you to civil liability imposed by the Regional Water Board,” wrote geologist Yemia Hashimoto to then Base Reuse Manager Jennifer Ott.
“Depending on the situation, the Regional Water Board can impose a fine of up to $5,000 per day, and a court can impose fines of up to $25,000 per day, as well as criminal penalties,” reads a fact sheet attached to the letter.
In response, Ott argued that the City’s existing “wait-for-a-developer” plan was adequate to protect human health and did not address the Regional Water Board’s request for additional investigation.
On November 8, 2018, the Regional Water Board renewed its demand in a letter to both the Navy and City requiring action by March 1, 2019, and other reports documenting the completion of work to follow. “This letter is addressed to both the City and the Navy because it has come to our attention that the City and the Navy disagree regarding which party is responsible for resolving the petroleum cleanup liabilities,” wrote the water board.
Chevron accepts responsibility for cleanup
So how did Chevron get involved? They became engaged at the suggestion of the Regional Water Board. In 2021, when the City and the Navy were discussing financial responsibility and next steps in the process for investigation and remediation, Hashimoto asked City and the Navy officials whether they had engaged Chevron, the entity whose historical operations resulted in the tarry material being on site. “They had not,” said Hashimoto. “We reached out to Chevron, provided them the information, and let them know that they are also a responsible party. We told them a Cleanup and Abatement Order could be issued with all parties named.”
Chevron agreed to work with the City of Alameda and the Navy to further investigate this issue. “We did not participate in the closed-door meetings between Chevron, the City of Alameda, and the Navy,” said Hashimoto. “After months of discussions, we were informed that Chevron would take over responsibility. We thus began to direct our correspondence and billing to Chevron, cc’ing the City and the Navy.”
Hashimoto added, “Since Chevron has been fully cooperative, we agreed to continue our oversight of the site without a Cleanup and Abatement Order for now.”
Up until Chevron’s involvement, the crude oil contamination was referred to as the Tarry Refinery Waste in Navy cleanup documents. But it’s unclear how much of the contamination is waste and how much is crude oil spilled, leaked, or drained onto the ground after breaching tanks and stills because it wasn’t worth the trouble to remove it when the plant closed. Today Chevron simply refers to the petroleum contamination as tarry material.
Background on making kerosene for lighting
Making kerosene out of crude oil was, and still is, performed through a process of heating crude oil in a still and capturing the vapors, which are then condensed into a liquid. Kerosene became a commercially viable product with the discovery of vast underground oil deposits that would serve as the raw material.
One of those oil fields was in Southern California near the town of Newhall, where Pacific Coast Oil Company owned wells. Initially the oil was transported to Alameda by rail car. Then, in 1895, the company built California’s first steel tanker, the SS George Loomis, at Union Iron Works in San Francisco. Unlike modern oil tankers, this tanker transported oil in 42-gallon barrels. They soon began shipping crude oil from the Port of Ventura to Cohen’s Wharf, aka Alameda Terminal, just a stone’s throw away from the refinery.
“Here it converted great quantities of crude petroleum from southern California into kerosene; gasoline was of little importance in those days,” writes Imelda Merlin in Alameda – A Geographical History. “This plant also produced naphtha, lucine, benzene, paraffin, lubricating oil, car oil, cylinder oil, engine oil, and a dark green lubricating oil.”
The company closed operations in Alameda and moved to Richmond because the small plant could not keep up with demand. “Thus, for lack of space suitable for industry, Alameda lost a multi-million dollar operation,” Merlin continues, “which, incidentally, had been polluting its water and air and was therefore not regretted by many of the residents. It removed, however, a large income in the way of taxes which was later to be assessed to property owners.”
Kerosene’s popularity for lighting was cut short by a new invention—the ability to harness electricity and transport it through wires to electric light bulbs. Fortunately for the oil business, but not so fortunately for the environment, another new invention provided a new source of revenue—gasoline-powered automobiles.
Back to the future with kerosene
The historical twist is that decades after kerosene production ended in Alameda, the Navy began using the exact same compound as jet fuel. Not only that, but the kerosene refinery was right next to where the Navy built its jet-engine test facility where some 4,000 gallons of jet fuel leaked out of a tank in 1991. That cleanup has been completed.
After refining a cleanup plan, Chevron, through its Environmental Management Company, will now complete the last chapter of cleanup at this corner of the base that will one day be sold by the City to a commercial developer.
Contributing writer Richard Bangert posts stories and photos about environmental issues on his blog Alameda Point Environmental Report, https://alamedapointenviro.com/. His writing is collected at AlamedaPost.com/Richard-Bangert.