Judge Halts Chevron's Richmond Refinery Expansion

By Richard Brenneman
Monday July 06, 2009 - 06:01:00 PM

Chevron must stop all work on expanding its Richmond refinery until a new project environmental review is completed and approved, a Contra Costa County judge has ruled. 

Superior Court Judge Barbara Zuniga issued the second of two crucial rulings July 1 in a lawsuit brought by a coalition of environmental groups in opposition to the refinery expansion. 

Zuniga had already overturned Chevron’s environmental impact report (EIR) last month. 

About 100 workers have already been laid of as a result of the decision, Chevron representative Brent Tippen said Monday, “and over the next several weeks we will continue to release workers as we begin to safely demobilize the project.” 

Will Rostov, attorney for Earthjustice, and Adrienne Bloch of Communities for a Better Environment, represented their own organizations in the lawsuit along with Asian Pacific Environmental Network and West County Toxics Coalition. 

“It’s a big victory for the community and for environmental health,” Rostov said, “because as a result of Judge Zuniga’s ruling, everyone will now have a chance to learn what the true costs of the refinery expansion will be.” 

“Chevron is disappointed with the court's ruling,” Tippen said. “We feel both the evidence and the law amply supported the adequacy of the EIR prepared by the City of Richmond for the Renewal Project.”  

That document, approved by the Richmond City Council, had breached the California Environmental Quality Act by failing to include a comprehensive evaluation of the effects of the refinery expansion, the judge ruled. 

The Richmond City Council had certified the EIR even though the document failed to declare whether or not the project would enable the oil company to process heavier and potentially more pulling crude oils than are currently refined at the site, one of the reasons cited by the judge in her June decision that invalidated the EIR. 

The EIR was also invalid because it allowed the refinery to postpone a plan to mitigate any increase in globe-warming greenhouse gases generated by the expansion for a year after the city had certified the EIR and because the document failed to examine a hydrogen gas pipeline that is a key part of the project. 

In addition to tossing out the EIR, Judge Zuniga’s writ of mandate overturned the city council’s approval of the Richmond Planning Commission’s decision to issue conditional use and design review permits for the refinery expansion. 

Finally, the judge ordered Chevron to stop work on the project and gave the oil company “up to 60 days to complete any needed demobilization that does not include any new construction.” 

Tippen said a year’s delay in the project could mean the loss of more than a million labor hours and $50 million to $75 million in lost income to workers in the city and county. 

Other questions remain open, including the fate of the $61 million Richmond Community Benefits Agreement the refinery pledged in exchange for city approval of the project. 

Tippen said the decision places the agreement in jeopardy, and the loss of funds plus the loss of worker income “will result in significant revenue loss to the City of Richmond at a time when the local economy can ill-afford even more job and revenue losses.” 

Rostov said the court’s decision means that Chevron will have to disclose fully what its plans for the refinery are, and to disclose the real impacts of greenhouses gases generated by the project. 

Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin said she veiws the judge’s decision as a victory for the city, and a critical step on the road the the creation of an environmentally just community. 

McLaughlin, who was among the council minority who opposed the project and the EIR, said Judge Zuniga’s decision will enable the development of a good project at the refinery, “one in which all the requirements and regulations are spelled out in the EIR.” 

“It’s an opportunity to bring about a project that has the health of the community at heart,” McLaughlin said. 

The mayor said that Chevron should also continue to pay its construction workers while the EIR is being rewritten. “There’s precedent for that,” she said.