Four hundred Richmond residents, many skeptical and disbelieving, listened to Chevron executives attempt to persuade the city planners in Richmond on Thursday to sign off on a controversial plan to remodel their 106-year-old refinery.
"The health risks are insignificant," Bob Chamberlin, the permit manager for the refinery, told the commission, while spectators in the audience groaned in disbelief. "We are the most tightly controlled refinery in the country, if not the world."
Chevron is asking to "upgrade" its 3,000-acre refinery with a new power plant and new production facility that will enable it to process crude oil with larger amounts of sulfur and other impurities. Opponents say the changes would rain more pollution and toxic chemicals on Richmond. They were asking for the planning commission to delay the expansion pending further study of how the changes will impact the area.
It was not immediately clear how or when the commission would decide on Chevron's request. After the Chevron presentation, two environmental groups opposing the plan got a chance to address the commission.
Greg Karras of Communities for a Better Environment called the commission's vote a "momentous decision" with a "potential for irreversible impacts."
Henry Clark of the West County Toxics Coalition criticized Chevron for not fully investigating current health problems in Richmond and said its residents were "living on the front lines of (Chevron's) chemical assault."
Members of the public, along with two environmental groups, were awaiting their turn to speak as the evening wore on. Several members of the public said they had plenty to say.
"We're already breathing a toxic load from a century of heavy industry in this town. We can't take any more," said Tarnel Abbot, 55, a longtime Richmond resident.
During the refinery executives' testimony, Abbot stood silently at the rear of the chamber and held up a sign that said, "Chevron Lies."
Resident Lillie Mae Jones, 78, said she is skeptical, too.
"If it produces jobs and cleans up the air, it will be great, but as usual, there will be a lot of lies (and) there's going to be games," she said.
At the center of the controversy is the environmental impact report for the project. The city is required to look at the project's expected emissions of volatile organic compounds as well as greenhouse gases, the latter of which contributes to global warming. But the city's report concluded that the greenhouse gas impact would be "speculative."
Chevron issued a statement Thursday saying that the project "meets or exceeds" regulatory requirements. California Attorney General Jerry Brown's office disagreed.
Brown's office sent a letter March 6 to the city of Richmond saying that the final environmental impact report was inadequate and cited a number of oversights. Among other things, the attorney general's office said the city's report "relies on a document that does not yet exist."
Brown's office said the report ignored the impact of some greenhouse gas emissions, while failing to support claims that other volatile organic compound emissions were not significant. Compounding those problems, Brown's office said the city had put out an inadequate plan for monitoring and enforcing air quality standards - possibly putting residents at much greater risk.
In addition, Brown's office said Richmond officials did not require Chevron to do any emission mitigation efforts inside the city limits, where the project's impact would be most severely felt.
"As written, the measures actually adopted could occur anywhere in the state and literally could be anything," the attorney general's office wrote about the proposed mitigation efforts.
Brown's office noted that some of the city's proposed solutions may be harmful as well, but that the city had not laid out a plan for looking at that either.
The attorney general's office pointedly noted that California law requires that such projects "not disproportionately impact low-income communities," a definition that presumably includes impoverished Richmond.