CBS 5 - March 5, 2008.
Officials at the Chevron refinery in Richmond lied to the city about their plans to switch to refining dirtier, cheaper crude oil that could result in five to 50 times more pollution, an Oakland-based environmental group alleged on Wednesday.
Chevron officials denied the charge that the proposed project would increase pollution. If anything, it would reduce emissions, the company maintained.
"It's not an expansion project, it's an upgrade," refinery spokeswoman Camille Priselac said. "The refinery is going to continue using the same types of crude and the same amount of crude."
In its final environmental impact report submitted to the city for its plans known as the Energy and Hydrogen Renewal Project, Chevron stated that the refinery upgrades would not result in increased pollution other than perhaps a 1 percent increase in sulfur.
Priselac said the refinery has proposed to replace its 1930s power plant with a new plant that would allow the refinery to become independent from the Pacific Gas and Electric Co. power grid. It has also proposed to replace its 1960s gasoline reformer with a new one.
The project would reduce overall emissions and make the refinery more efficient and energy independent, Priselac said.
However, Greg Karras, a senior scientist with Communities for a Better Environment said the proposed upgrades actually amount to an expansion that would give the refinery the capacity to refine dirtier crude oil, and, according to his experience with the oil industry -- refineries have always used the capacity they have built for.
"Why would they go to cheaper, dirtier oil? (Because) price discounts can exceed $5 per barrel, which, for a refinery Chevron's size, could be about $400 million per year," Karras said.
He added that those price discounts would not necessarily translate into cheaper prices at the pump.
Meanwhile, switching to dirtier crude oil could also lead to increases in mercury, sulfur and greenhouse gas emissions, Karras said.
The environmental-activist group uncovered the refinery's alleged plans to switch to dirtier oil after looking at the final environmental impact report submitted to Richmond and finding that "it didn't make sense," Karras said.
They then looked at documents submitted to the Bay Area Air Quality Management District and the Regional Water Quality Control Board and found that the project was similar to one proposed in 2001 in which the refinery applied for a permit to upgrade its refining capacity to be able to refine dirtier oil. The air district did not approve the project, Karras said.
While refinery officials have allegedly denied that they plan to switch to using dirtier crude oil, they have also not agreed to any limit on the quality of crude oil they would be permitted to bring into the refinery if the upgrades are approved, Karras said.
"This project is about refining cheap and dirty crude at a cheap and dirty refinery," said Jessica Tovar, a community organizer for Communities for a Better Environment and a resident of Atchison Village, a neighborhood seated along the fence line of the refinery.
Sylvia Hopkins, another Atchison Village resident, said children in her neighborhood had an extremely high rate of asthma and other respiratory illnesses and that she personally needed to use a machine to help her breathe every night. She said she also knows two people in her neighborhood who can each count six people on their blocks who have cancer, half of whom have already died from it.
Hopkins said elevated levels of sulfur, heavy metals and particulate matter were found inside and outside her house.
If the project is approved, refining dirtier crude oil will also take higher temperatures, which will lead to more flaring, fires and explosions, Tovar said.
Henry Clark, executive director of the West County Toxics Coalition, said his organization has been "waging a struggle against Chevron for the past 20 years."
"Communities like mine, like North Richmond, have already taken more than their fair share of pollution," Clark said. "We've already suffered more than our fair share from asthma and death. For them to come back and say it's OK because it only adds a little more injustice ... this here is environmental racism."
Clark blasted the refinery for committing environmental crimes against the primarily low-income minority communities near the refinery.
"There's been a thorough review of the project" by the city of Richmond, its consultants and other government agencies, including the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, Priselac said, noting that although the permitting process was only supposed to take one year, it has dragged on for three.
The city could make its decision of whether or not to approve the environmental impact report as early as March 20.
The refinery must receive permits from the city and the air quality district before it can begin construction.