E-Mail Forum
City Council And Planning Commission Having Buyer's Remorse Over General Chemical
December 1, 2001
In 1993, the General Chemical oleum release sickened 24,000 people and cost the company and its insurers $180 million, not to mention the intangible damage to Richmond's reputation. Following the incident, General Chemical moved to make changes in its plant that allegedly were intended to reduce the future risk of similar incidents by producing a different type of sulfuric acid. The project, under Richmond's Zoning Ordinance, required a conditional use permit, and in 1995, General Chemical applied for Conditional Use Permit 95-4 "to allow acid manufacture use in a M-3, Heavy Industrial District for electronic grade sulfuric acid pursuant to RMC 15.04.140.A.39.a."

After the havoc wreaked by General Chemical, it was incomprehensible to me to see the enthusiastic advocacy with which the Richmond Planning Department staff supported a negative declaration for the project, arguing that the project "would not generate significant environmental effects."

The Planning Department's 1995 decision not to require an environmental impact report was appealed by Communities for a Better Environment (CBE), West County Toxics Coalition (WCTC) and me. This was when I was running for election to the City Council. First, the Planning Commission voted 4-3 to reject the appeal.

The appeal then went to the City Council, which on November 6, 1995, the day before the election, voted 6-2 to reject the appeal. Only Powers and Marquez supported the appeal. I was elected to the City Council the next day.

In documents filed with the appeal, the Contra Costa Building and Construction Trades Council stated: "This is to let you know of our concern about the negative declaration report regarding General Chemical. We feel strongly that this report, while admitting that another toxic cloud could be released by the proposed new process, claims there will be 'no impact,' yet does not fully address all the issues.'

The appellants, CBE, WCTC and I, argued that Richmond would be safer if General Chemical were required to comply with the BAAQMD's secondary containment rule rather than being allowed to avoid compliance with the rule. We maintained that an EIR should have been required to fully assess the risks and appropriate mitigations. CBE's expert, Richard Rosensen, explained that the project would essentially involve relocating risks that existed in Bay Point and place them in Richmond. Rosensen wrote to the Richmond Planning Department on August 10, 1995 with concerns specifically regarding possible massive oleum releases from the proposed project, off-site movement of a sulfur trioxide gas cloud and spillage of spent alkylation sulfuric acid and sulfuric acid.

The release of November 29, 2001, was the third since the project described by Conditional Use Permit 95-4 was issued to General Chemical. In two of the releases, it appears General Chemical delayed reporting the release to authorities for substantial time periods. The traditional support by the Richmond City Council and staff for heavy industries that can't keep their toxic products within their property lines appears to be waning for the first time in over a century. Several City Council members have demanded a full investigation of the latest general Chemical release, and some have expressed the opinion that the company may have outlived its welcome in Richmond.