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California

Tanks of ethanol burn at energy facility in the Bay Area, prompting road closures

Fire at NuStar Energy facility in Crockett, Calif.
Tanks storing ethanol caught fire Tuesday afternoon at a NuStar Energy facility in Crockett, Calif. The cause of the fire is being investigated.
(Contra Costa County Fire Protection District)

At least two large tanks of ethanol burned Tuesday at a NuStar Energy facility in Crockett, Calif., prompting road closures and a shelter-in-place order for residents that lasted late into the evening.

Residents in Rodeo, Crockett and Hercules were finally advised that they could reopen windows and doors about 9:30 p.m. Interstate 80 reopened in both directions after being closed in the area near the NuStar facility for about six hours.

It remains unclear what started the fire.

Just before 3 p.m., the Cal Fire Santa Clara Unit reported that firefighters were on the scene of a petroleum tank fire at 90 San Pablo Ave. in Crockett in Contra Costa County, and that two petroleum tanks were on fire, along with nearby grass and brush. About 1 1/2 hours later, the Cal Fire unit said on Twitter that crews couldn’t access parts of the vegetation fire because of how close it was burning to the tanks.

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By 5:30 p.m., 42 fire units from across the Bay Area had responded to the fire. Five engines from the Petrol-Chemical Mutual Aid Assn., which included units from Chevron, Shell, Marathon, Phillips and Corteva, were on scene with “specialized resources working under the unified command to control the incident,” according to the Contra Costa County Fire Protection District.

Contra Costa County fire officials initially said on Twitter that three large tanks of ethanol were burning, but later during a news conference a fire captain told reporters that that it appeared two tanks were involved.

“It’s unknown if there are any other tanks here involved, what materials are in the tanks or what is causing the column of black smoke that you see behind me,” Capt. George Laing.

NuStar Energy said in a statement that the two tanks affected by the fire were “holding very low volumes of ethanol — less than 1% of tank capacity.”

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The company said nearby tanks were being cooled to lessen the risk of the fire spreading. All personnel are safe and accounted for, the company said.

As a result of the fire, NuStar suspended all operations at the facility and halted all shipments.

The company did not identify how the fire started but said it would provide additional information as it becomes available.

The San Francisco Chronicle reported Tuesday that the magnitude 4.5 earthquake that struck Pleasant Hill, Calif., on Monday night prompted flaring at two refineries in nearby Martinez, a safety procedure used to burn off excess gas. No information was available Tuesday evening about whether the quake had any impact on the NuStar facility, which sits northwest of Pleasant Hill.

KNTV Channel 11, an NBC affiliate in the Bay Area, reported about 7 p.m. that the fire had reignited and that flames were approaching another fuel tank.

Steve Hill, a public information officer with Contra Costa County Fire Protection District, told reporters about 7:45 p.m. that the fire was contained to the facility and nearby communities were not at risk.

County health workers were at the fire monitoring air conditions and taking readings, fire officials said.

As black smoke billowed out of the tanks and floated upward, the Contra Costa County Community Warning System advised residents in Crockett and Rodeo to shelter in place until the situation stabilized. The all-clear was finally given at 9:38 p.m.

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Because of air quality concerns, John Swett Unified School District announced its schools would be closed Wednesday. John Swett High School is about 1.5 miles from the NuStar facility, and the district’s Rodeo Hills Elementary School is 1.6 miles away.

NuStar’s tanks sit near Interstate 80 and are visible to drivers near the Cummings Skyway exit. Drivers were asked to avoid the area given the closure of I-80 near the facility. The closure had been expected to last until at least midnight, but the highway reopened shortly before 10 p.m., according to the California Highway Patrol.

“There is no longer [imminent] danger to the motoring public and the freeway is now open,” the CHP Contra Costa unit said on Twitter at 9:44 p.m. “Thank you to all our allied agencies for their combined effort in dealing with this incident. We are thankful for everyone’s safety.”

NuStar Energy is a large company with 9,800 miles of pipeline and 74 terminal and storage facilities that store and distribute crude oil, refined products and specialty liquids, according to the company’s website. Its facility in Crockett has 24 tanks with sizes ranging from 14,000 to 200,000 barrels and a total site capacity of about 3 million barrels, the website says. The tanks hold gasoline, diesel, aviation fuels and ethanol, according to the company.


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