The lawsuit claims an environmental impact report and a conditional use permit approved by a divided Richmond City Council in July should be voided because the study didn't evaluate the impact of refining heavier oil and increased emission of greenhouse gases.
The complaint asks for a court order blocking the project until a revised environmental impact report is prepared.
Greg Karras, a scientist with Communities for a Better Environment, charged, "Chevron's project would lock in a fundamental switch to dirtier oil refining that increases toxic and climate-poisoning pollution drastically, when avoiding these impacts is feasible."
Chief Deputy City Attorney Scott Dickey said he couldn't comment on the lawsuit because his office had not received it.
Refinery spokesman Dean O'Hair said Chevron officials also hadn't seen the complaint, but said, "We believe it will be found to be without merit."
The Chevron refinery is the largest in Northern California. The retooling, known as the Energy and Hydrogen Renewal Project, would include a new power plant, replacement or modification of other equipment and the ability to refine oil with a higher sulfur content.
O'Hair said Chevron maintains that because efficiency will be increased, the project will result in "an overall reduction in emissions, a more reliable refinery and reduced flaring."
He said the facility will continue to refine light and medium rather than heavy crude oil and that while a slightly higher sulfur content will be allowed, the refinery will be more efficient at removing sulfur.
The plaintiffs in the case are Communities for a Better Environment, the Asian Pacific Environmental Network and the Richmond-based West County Toxics Coalition.
The defendants are the city of Richmond, San Ramon-based Chevron Corp. and Chevron Products Co., the subsidiary that runs the refinery.
William Rostov, a lawyer for the environmental groups, said no court hearings have been scheduled thus far, but said, "We're considering our options for expediting the case."
The lawsuit alleges the retooling will increase releases of selenium, mercury, sulfur compounds and greenhouse gases into the air.
Torm Nompraseurt, a Richmond resident and member of the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, contended, "The City Council failed its legal and moral obligation to protect our health.
"Those dangerous chemicals are going to affect me, my family and my neighbors but the city didn't even look at what Chevron is really going to be doing," Nompraseurt alleged.