County officials want answers on refinery leak

County officials want answers on refinery leak
Big West of California facility on Rosedale Highway, photo from Big West of California LLC
Kern County Environmental Health officials want answers about the hydrogen gas leak from the Big West Refinery. The leak Sunday was the latest problem at the refinery on Rosedale Highway, and officials specifically want information on how to prevent something like this from happening again.

Just three days before, the refinery also had a leak of sulfur gas.

Eyewitness News also heard from a viewer who reported a very strong smell in the Rosedale area earlier on Sunday. We discovered officials couldn't pinpoint that problem.

Sunday's problem at the refinery was a compressor that allowed a release of hydrogen gas. "Big West was unable to provide us how much was released, but there was enough to cause a concern about a potential explosion based on the chemical that was known to be released," said Kern County Environmental Health Department director Matt Constantine on Monday.

Constantine says his department wants to know exactly what chemicals were released, how much, and for how long. But he says the most important thing is to find out what went wrong, so the refinery can determine how to prevent a leak like this again.

"That's exactly what we look for," said Big West Senior Environmental Engineer Melinda Hicks. "We determine the root cause and then understand what needs to be implemented to prevent."

No one was hurt in the Sunday incident. Big West officials could not say if any of the hydrogen gas left the refinery site. But, Hicks says the company will do a complete review of the incident -- and send that on to county officials.

The hydrogen gas release happened just before noon, says Hicks. But, about 8 a.m. on Sunday, a nearby neighborhood reported a very strong smell.

"To me, it smelled like gas," Melody Hamaker said. "It smelled like gas -- just regular gas -- mixed with chlorine. That's why it was so strong and so intense. I told my husband it's got to be something."

Hamaker says she was worried about the elderly residents in her neighborhood.

Big West's Hicks says the refinery heard about the strong odor reports, but they don't think it came from the refinery or was associated with the hydrogen release. Big West says hydrogen gas has no smell or odor.

Eyewitness News called the San Joaquin Valley Air District, and spokeswoman Brenda Turner said her office got several reports about the strong odor Sunday morning. Turner says an investigator went to the affected neighborhoods, but couldn't track it down. They don't know what caused the odor, or where it came from.

Constantine says if people smell anything, they should report it. The Environmental Health chief says residents can call 911. Big West also has a hot line to report smells or problems. That number is 635-2442.

Constantine says resident reports are important. "If they have information, we'd love to hear it. It's difficult for us to always be out there. So, we rely on residents and other businesses to let us know what's going on."

As for the hydrogen leak, Big West says they'll send their investigation reports on to the county as soon as they get them. Hicks says it's too soon to know what caused the problem.

"It's really too early in our investigation to even try to speculate what it might have been, and what should be done," said Hicks. "We look to reserve any judgement on that until we have fully gone through and collected all the data and trudged through it and really make a a comprehensive analysis of the situation."

Constantine says after a recent report of a bad smell, Big West had their report to his office in about ten days. He says the county can get some information about the incident, but they also need the data from Big West.

"Big West has improved on their reporting. We have seen a significant increase in the number of reports they've given to us, and sometimes just verbal communication that something is going wrong. So, we're happy that we have a better system to communicate."