Richmond debates Chevron’s plan to modernize its oil refinery

Jul 28, 2014

More than 400 people have filled Richmond’s Civic Auditorium. You can spot the Chevron workers. They’re wearing blue and white shirts saying “Richmond Proud” and waving signs that read “Modernize Now” – signs supplied by Chevron.

For nearly a decade, Chevron and its neighbors in Richmond have been fighting over a proposal to retool the oil company’s refinery. Most everyone agrees the plant needs to be modernized. But they differ about how.

Chevron claims the proposed $1 billion project would make the refinery cleaner and safer.

Environmentalists say the upgrade does too little to lower toxic emissions in a city plagued by high asthma rates. And it would do nothing to fix a part of the plant that caught fire and sent 15,000 people to area hospitals in 2012.

But some residents argue Richmond – one of the Bay Area’s poorest communities – needs the jobs the renovations would bring.

Folks like Donald Smith talk about their loyalty to Chevron. He says Chevron gave him a job when he was released from prison in 1995, and his work was to make the plant safe.

“During this improvement, not only did Chevron produce cleaner, safer gas, but I too was improved with a livable wage, benefits, a sense of self worth,” Smith says.

About 2,700 employees and 850 contractors work in Richmond’s sprawling Chevron plant. The refinery is the largest taxpayer in the city, which has a population just over 100,000. Smith says the energy company has taken care of Richmond’s residents, and the city should greenlight the remodel.

“And lastly,” he says, “I’d like to say, for all the people against this project, I don’t remember seeing one bicycle parked out front.”

“I rode my bicycle here tonight,” Planning Commissioner Marilyn Langlois tells the council.

The city council’s lawyer has recommended that the council approve a more environmentally friendly project than the one Chevron initially proposed. But it would be a less green project than the planning commission wants. Langlois urges the council to follow the commission’s recommendations – to have Chevron replace all its aging pipes, to permanently fix all its leaks and to dome all its tanks.

“Imagine a City Council that isn’t deterred by threats of lawsuits and requires Chevron to undertake reasonable safety and emissions-reductions measures as part of this major construction project.” Langlois says.

The city actually approved Chevron’s modernization plan in 2008. But environmentalists sued, and a judge stopped construction. The court found the city had failed to consider potential air pollution from new supplies of heavier crude, and the city should have required lower greenhouse gas emissions. Now the city is trying to figure out how low.

But many at the hearing worry more about jobs than pollution. Unemployment in Richmond is nearly 10 percent – far above the Bay Area’s jobless rate. Antoine Cloird, who worked at the plant, says the council should focus on what steady employment means for people like him.

“If you approve this project, the kids will now get PlayStations and Barbie dolls and bears that talk to ‘em,” he says. “See, it’s a difference when a man can go home and be a man with a job.”

But Asian Pacific Environmental Network’s Miya Yoshintani says Richmond can have jobs and clean air if the council adopts the planning commission’s stricter recommendations.

“Take the opportunity that’s in front of you,” she tells the mayor and council members. “The opportunity to ensure real local hire and to create local jobs, the opportunity to better protect this community and especially workers inside a safer refinery, the opportunity to begin to invest in the transition from fossil fuels to clean, renewable energy that is inevitable and that only makes the Richmond economy more robust, more diverse and more powerful.”

West County Toxics Coalition director Henry Clark has spent decades fighting for environmental justice in Richmond. While many of those battles have been against Chevron, he now embraces the oil company’s modernization plan.

“This project here is the best refinery project that has ever come before people in this city of Richmond. Period,” Clark says.

“Here we are talking today about zero net increase greenhouse gas and associated toxics. You can’t beat that. You should be trying to jump out an airplane to support a project like that,” he says.

But not everyone wants to take that leap. They know Chevron is far and away the largest employer in Richmond, and they want to make sure all the workers and all Richmond residents are safe.

After five hours of discussion, it’s past 11:30 p.m., and 88 of the people who signed up to speak have not yet had a turn. The hearing continues Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. Following the hearing, the council is scheduled to cast its long-awaited vote.

Find meeting information here.

Click the audio player above to listen to the complete story.