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Published on March 6, 2010

Barnidge: Animus Bubbles to Surface over Chevron Upgrade

By Tom Barnidge
Contra Costa Times columnist

EVEN IF YOU care nothing about oil refineries and have no stake in the community, there is something strangely compelling about the infighting over Chevron's proposed $1 billion upgrade to its Richmond plant.

The bare-knuckles brawl that awaits a verdict is stunningly similar to what's happening on the larger political stage. Accusations, distrust and strident positions — sounds like Congress, doesn't it? — have characterized the relationship between opposing interests.

For the moment, the project rests in limbo, awaiting a ruling from a state appellate court on the heels of a lawsuit filed by environmental groups. Potentially at risk is a $61 million community benefits package that Chevron promised as part of the deal, perhaps the future of the plant, some $35 million in taxes it annually pays into the general fund and several thousand jobs.

Apart from that, not much is at stake.

The amusing part is all the finger-pointing.

City Council members, deeply divided over an environmental impact report they certified by a 5-4 vote, remain critical of one another's judgment. Those in favor wonder how their peers could vote against a project that benefits the community and creates jobs. Those opposed gloat that they knew the report was flawed, and that's why it was challenged in court.

Chevron officials question why the environmental groups — Communities for a Better Environment, Asian Pacific Environmental Network and West County Toxics Coalition — would forestall an upgrade to an operation that, by definition, is subject to heavy federal and local emission regulations.

Environmentalists insist that Chevron pulled a fast one, making unannounced plans to refine heavier crude oil that would worsen pollution.

So many issues, so much animus. Where to begin?

Councilman Nate Bates aims his furor primarily at Mayor Gayle McLaughlin. If she had reached out to Chevron and smoothed the way for a mutually acceptable project, he said, at least 1,000 unemployed tradesmen would have work and the city would have a $61 million windfall earmarked for the police and fire departments, medical facilities and nonprofit organizations. [emphasis added]

"She is anti-Chevron," he said. "She's into the green business approach and thinks they can't coexist. People are suffering, they need jobs, and this lady stands in the way of progress."

McLaughlin responds that Chevron has ridden roughshod over the City Council for too long: "They need to pay their fair share and respect the community by reducing pollution." [emphasis added]

Bates might be right about the anti-Chevron thing.

The most perplexing aspect of the story — a core sample of bureaucracy at work — is that the project has been under review for nearly four years.

Three independent environmental consultants signed off on the upgrade, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District gave its conditional blessing and the public was invited to react to the EIR before council members voted. And still nothing has been accomplished.

What brought environmentalists and their lawyers into the fray was the report's failure to address the potential ramifications of refining heavier crude.

Chevron spokesman Brent Tippen says Chevron has no plans to refine heavy crude. But even if those plans changed, government regulations regarding emissions would remain just as stringent, so what's the issue?

"It's not what goes into the refinery that matters," he said, "it's what comes out. The Richmond refinery emissions are heavily regulated by the Air Quality Management District."

That was Councilman Tom Butt's cue to toss another log on the fire.

He described the district as a weak organization, "with a long history of tending to side with the polluters, not with the communities impacted by the pollution."

Further, he said, he doesn't believe it possible to accurately measure emissions, a conclusion that came as a surprise to the Air Quality Management District, which assigns a full-time staff member to do nothing but monitor the Chevron refinery.

Let Brian Bateman, director of engineering for the district, explain: "We monitor criteria air pollutants continuously, 24/7, for things like nitrous oxide and particulate matter. We do periodic source testing in the stacks — those are ongoing and continuous. And we do parametric monitoring of things such as the temperature, which have impact on emissions. We monitor all significant pollutants."

Was he annoyed to hear the district described as "weak"?

"Councilman Butt is entitled to his opinion," Bateman said. "I'm not going to comment further."

That makes him the exception. Everyone else is only too willing to play kick-your-neighbor.

Contact Tom Barnidge at


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