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Richmond Refinery Plans Face Strong Opposition

By Richard Brenneman
Tuesday January 29, 2008

Richmond’s Design Review Board this week will take up major renovation plans for the city’s Chevron Refinery, using an environmental impact report (EIR) one city councilmember calls “really pathetic” and “a piece of shit.” 

“I’ve been dealing with Chevron for decades,” said Tom Butt, the always-outspoken councilmember. And while Richmond was once a company town, he said the oil giant has alienated too many people to win an easy pass. 

He said too many questions remain unanswered about the extensive plans for what the oil company calls its Energy and Hydrogen Renewal Project. 

Mayor Gayle McLaughlin agrees. 

“I believe we need a re-circulation of the EIR with all relevant information and all potential impacts disclosed for full public review,” she said in an email to this newspaper. “Hundreds of public comments (some hundreds of pages long) were received by Planning Department expressing grave concerns about the project as proposed.” 

The Design Review Board, which meets at 6 p.m. Thursday in the temporary city council chambers at 1401 Marina Way South, is the first city body to take up the document. 

But the meeting will find two of the board’s five seats vacant with the citizen panelists in a state of limbo as the city moves towards ending the board’s existence and merging its functions into the Planning Commission. 

A council majority adopted a Maria Viramontes proposal to merge the two bodies, though the agencies continue their separate existences five months after the board’s intended termination. 

Butt said he hopes the board exercises its right to delay a decision until they have had time to review what he called “the nine pounds of documents [which] were dumped on them last weekend.” 

He said the board also has the right to call in consultants at Chevron’s expenses to review any questions they may have. 

While the slowly expiring board has a title that would seem to focus on issues of style and color, Butt said the body is also charged with evaluating how projects impact the quality of life in the community. 

Once the proposal has passed muster with the board, it then heads to the Planning Commission. 

Butt said he expects that whatever decision those bodies reach, an appeal to the city council is a foregone conclusion. 

“This massive project requires so much more than a dialogue between city staff, consultants, and Chevron,” said the mayor. “The pertinent dialogue here is the dialogue within the community who will be the recipient of any potential impact.” 

Butt has been targeting the project’s impact in emails to his constituents, focusing on issues of global warming, dangerous emissions and public health. 

Butt and McLaughlin are both concerned that the report failed to adequately address public health issues. 

“Western Contra Costa County has much higher rates of cancer and asthma than the rest of the county,” Butt said, charging that the EIR failed to adequately address the impacts of refinery pollutants when combined with other chemicals circulating in the city’s environment. 

McLaughlin raised the issue in her State of the City Address: “When it comes to expansion proposals from Richmond’s petrochemical industry, anything short of a reduction in each pollutant and a cumulative reduction in the overall pollution that is rained over our heads is simply more of the same ... a continuation of the environmental injustice that our city has suffered for decades.” 

The draft EIR generated “hundreds and hundreds of pages of comments from very reputable people and groups, including the Attorney General’s office,” Butt said. 

One of Butt’s particular concerns in environmental justice, “which is just glossed over in the EIR. It’s the idea that where there is a concentration of people who are already disadvantaged for economic and other reasons, you don’t do something that’s going to make it even worse.” 

“My position on the Chevron Expansion project is that this project must not increase pollution and must reduce current pollution levels for the people of Richmond,” McLaughlin said. 

On its own website, Chevron touts the project’s benefits, citing an overall decrease in noxious emissions and its promise to generate “millions in new tax revenues for Richmond that could be used to fund city programs including public safety, street repairs, libraries and youth services.” 

Butt said that while he believes his council colleagues have finally “had it with Chevron,” he worries that the company could promise enough grant funds to councilmembers’ pet projects to overcome their initial reluctance. 

According to the company website, the project includes four major components: 

• “Power Plant Replacement. Replace inefficient steam boiler plant built in the 1930s with gas turbine Cogeneration plant. 

• “Hydrogen Plant Replacement. Replace existing 40-year old high energy use plant with new energy efficient plant. 

• “Hydrogen Purity. Modify existing equipment to remove sulfur compounds and improve the purity of hydrogen used by refinery processing plants. 

• “Reformer Replacement. Replace 1960s gasoline reformers, with one plant of the same processing capacity as two existing plants.” 

The company said the construction effort will employ 1,200 workers. 

The city’s planning department website describes the project this way: “In general, the project would modify, replace and install typical refining equipment such as piping, heat exchangers, instrumentation, catalytic reactors, fractionation equipment, pumps, compressors, furnaces, tanks, hydrogen sulfide absorption capacity, hydrogen generation capacity and their associated facilities, including steam and electrical generation as well as some refinery buildings and infrastructure. These changes would include construction and installation of new facilities as well as replacement of or modifications to existing facilities.”