Chevron's refinery plans spark controversy

March 5, 2008 11:09:21 PM PST
One of the country's energy issues has historically been refining oil into gasoline, and now in the East Bay a battle over Chevron's attempt to upgrade its Richmond facility is getting a lot of attention.

The Freedom of Information Act allows reporters and the public to gain access to government documents. Using that tool, a community group in Richmond says it has found some documents it thinks could undo plans by Chevron to modernize its refinery.

"This is a showdown with Chevron. This is a showdown with all of those who support Chevron," says Henry Clark of the West County Toxics Coalition.

Residents of Richmond claim proposed changes at the refinery will raise pollutants.

"We have documentation that four types of pollutant releases, Mercury, selenium, flare emissions, and greenhouse gases could increase by up to five to 50 times if this is built. There could be more pollutants involved," says scientist Greg Karras.

Chevron is seeking permits to do a major upgrade of aging equipment at the refinery. However, the refinery's director of external affairs, Dean O'Hair, says the upgrade will produce fewer emissions.

"The environmental review that the city conducted with the input and advice of the Air Quality Management District reports that there will be an overall reduction in air emissions from the project. That's just one of the benefits. The other benefits of the project are a more reliable refinery, local jobs, as well as some additional tax revenue for the city," says O'Hair.

Nearby residents have expressed concern for years about pollutants. Richmond resident Sylvia Hopkins has been attending public hearings about the refinery project, but doesn't believe anyone is listening to their concerns.

"I wish I felt they were listening. But when I was at the Air Quality Board community informational meeting, we asked them, we said, 'it sounds to us the way you're talking, like this is, what is in effect going to happen," says Hopkins.

The controversy over this project is an example why it can be difficult, even impossible, to undertake even bigger projects, such as expanding a refinery or building a new one.

"Business in general doesn't look forward to delays or unpredictability in the permitting process. It makes you think about where you want to make your investments, and I think you want to make those investments where there's some fair certainty about the permitting process and the outcome of that process," says O'Hair.

The Richmond Planning Commission will take up the Chevron refinery project in about two weeks from Thursday. That's when Communities for a Better Environment plans to bring those documents along to raise some serious questions about the environmental impact.


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