Richmond’s largest employer may soon have more eyes looking over its shoulder after the City Council voted to repeal an ordinance that since 1992 has allowed Chevron to inspect its own projects with little independent oversight.
In its previous arrangement with Richmond, Chevron was allowed to appoint its own, city-approved inspector and was only subject to occasional audits by the city building official. Proponents say the inspection program was the easiest way of inspecting the scores of routine projects generated by the complex industrial giant.
Chevron currently employs Black and Veatch, a Kansas-based engineering firm, to conduct its inspections. “These are qualified engineers that know the refinery business,” testified city building official Fred Clement.
But critics contend that in the arrangement with Chevron, city auditors would only get around to reviewing projects after construction had started, or in some cases, had already been completed. The lack of oversight, they say, allowed the company to evade labor, environmental and zoning regulations.
“What’s the point of them looking at the work after the city signs off?” said Councilmember Maria Viramontes, one of four co-sponsors for the repeal measure. “Let’s put this old idea aside and figure out where to go from here.”
Since the self-inspection program began few violations have been cited. Earlier this year, however, the Contra Costa Building and Trades Council began an independent investigation into possible labor violations at Chevron.
“Because the city hasn’t known when a project has begun, Chevron often brings in their own labor force and circumvents the city’s labor code,” said Councilmember Gayle McLaughlin, another sponsor of the repeal.
A more thorough investigation showed that in many cases the city reviewed projects only after construction had been started.
“Chevron issues permits to itself. It then proceeds to inspect itself. The city learns after the project is complete—sometimes two or three years later. As a result the community never gets an opportunity to weigh in,” said Richard Drury, an attorney for Adams Broadwell Joseph & Cardozo, a law firm that worked with the trades council to obtain project-related documents from Chevron.
The council chambers were packed on Tuesday night as dozens of community members turned out to support the self-inspection repeal. Many took turns voicing their opinion to the commission. Among those were a group of labor supporters, several of whom stood at the back of the council chambers holding seven-foot high banners critical of Chevron.
“We who live two blocks away from the place can’t even get a job there. Something is wrong with that,” said Antwon Cloird, a Richmond worker and union representative from Local 324.
Others also expressed concerns over environmental protections. McLaughlin cited Chevron’s failure to adhere to the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA, which requires the developer of any significant project to study its effects on the environment.
“Chevron has not had projects go through a CEQA review in 13 years,” said McLaughlin.
Chevron External Affairs Manager Dean O’Hair defended his employer, arguing that the self-inspection program was not unusual—though Chevron is the only oil refiner in Contra Costa County allowed the privilege.
“Whatever the program, we’ll do what we’ve always done,” he said, his comment eliciting snickers from the heavily pro-repeal audience in attendance.
Responding to the possibility of repeal, O’Hair issued a warning to the council, saying, “Regardless of the outcome of the city’s decision, I hope each of you understands the consequences and ramifications.”
The council’s vote was unanimous despite the warning, and the fact that several on the council have received thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from Chevron. The council called on their staff to draft a new ordinance that would officially repeal the 13-year-old self-inspection ordinance. It will likely be introduced before the end of this year.
Earlier in the evening, a Chevron representative made a $100,000 donation toward the city’s troubled public library system. While Richmond’s mayor accepted the money, the gesture was met with cynicism by several others.
“Chevron made $3.2 billion in profit this quarter,” said Andres Soto, a Richmond community activist. “I think they could shave off a few more crumbs and get the entire library system up and running.”