Chevron halts construction, releases workers

July 2, 2009 7:08:53 PM PDT
The Chevron refinery in Richmond released 100 workers today following a Contra Costa County Superior Court judge's ruling Wednesday ordering the refinery to stop construction of its Energy and Hydrogen Renewal Project, Chevron spokesman Brent Tippen said.

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The refinery expects to release a total of about 1000 workers over the next 60 days as it demobilizes construction activities at the plant, Tippen said.

Tippen estimated that the ruling would result in a loss of about 1 million labor hours and approximately $50 million to $75 million in income to the workforce in Richmond and the county within the next year.

The city will also lose $61 million in various community benefits, Tippen said.

Tippen did not disclose how much money Chevron is expected to lose as a result of the order, but said that construction of the hydrogen plant and hydrogen purity components had been well underway. Construction of the new cogeneration facility hadn't yet begun.

The project, which broke ground in September after a permitting process that took more than three years, included replacing the refinery's 1960s-era hydrogen plant and its 1930s-era power plant. The Richmond City Council finally approved the project by a 5-4 vote.

Judge Barbara Zuniga's order to halt construction came after a ruling in June in which she found that an environmental impact report on the project failed to disclose whether it would enable the refinery to process heavier crude oil, failed to analyze a proposed hydrogen pipeline and illegally deferred greenhouse gas mitigation plans.

Refinery officials said the upgrade would increase the refinery's flexibility to process a wider variety of crude oil and improve the plant's energy efficiency and reliability.

However, experts at Communities for a Better Environment, Asian Pacific Environmental Network and the West County Toxics Coalition -- plaintiffs in the lawsuit that led to Wednesday's ruling -- said that the upgrade would enable the refinery to process heavier crude oil, which would lead to increased pollution and increased risk of upset and explosion.

Heavier crude oil can contain higher amounts of contaminants such as mercury and selenium, which can cause serious health problems, according to Communities for a Better Environment.

"The residents of Richmond do not accept letting Chevron continue to poison our community," 33-year Richmond resident and APEN senior organizer Torm Nompraseurt said in a news release from Earthjustice, the law firm representing the plaintiffs in the case. "This is a victory for the grassroots, and the people who have been suffering the health impacts of the refinery for the past 100 years."

"This is a historic environmental justice victory," said Dr. Henry Clark of the West County Toxics Coalition. "The court's decision gives our community hope and inspiration that the judicial system can work for the people."

Tippen, however, said that the physical limitations of the refinery's crude oil processing unit would not allow the refinery to process heavier crude oil.

He said the refinery would have continued to process the same types of crude after the project was completed. He also noted that harmful emissions of chemicals, such as mercury and selenium, are heavily regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Bay Area Air Quality Management District.

"Ironically, putting the project on hold means delaying demonstrable environmental benefits including improved refinery energy efficiency and reduced overall emissions," Tippen said.

He said refinery officials were disappointed with the court's ruling and believe the project had been properly analyzed and permitted.

Tippen also said that Chevron would continue to review its options and work with the city to decide what to do next.

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