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Richmond City Council Unites Behind Expanded General Chemical Probe
July 11, 2002
Following a release of toxic material at the General Chemical Plant in November of 2001, the Richmond City Council demanded a probe into the company’s safety practices. At first the Council agreed to direct the Planning Commission to conduct a hearing to determine if General Chemical was complying with its Conditional Use Permit (See TOM BUTT E-FORUM January 16, 2002 and May 25, 2002).

However, following intense lobbying by General Chemical, the Council agreed to scrub the Conditional Use Permit inquiry by the Richmond Planning Commission and, instead, pursue an audit conducted by the Contra Costa County Health Services Department. The actual audit and its scope would be determined by a committee that included representation from General Chemical. Due to foot dragging by the Contra Costa County Health Services Department, the audit has not yet begun, and at best, will not be completed until nearly a year after the incident that triggered it. It was the intent of the City Council to include the Conditional Use Permit issues in the audit, but neither the Richmond city staff representatives nor the County Health Department representatives wanted to go there. Consequently, the Conditional Use Permit inquiry was quietly dropped.

In a laudable moment of teamwork led by Councilman Jim Rogers and Councilwoman Viramontes on July 9, the City Council once again asserted its demand for an assessment of the Conditional Use Permit issues and demanded that General Chemical pay the cost for a consultant to review the company’s compliance with its existing Conditional Use Permit. See the article below in today’s West County Times (http://www.bayarea.com/mld/cctimes/news/local/states/california/counties/west_county/3640621.htm ).

City Wants New Study of Plant

Richmond City Council Members Say General Chemical Corp. Should Pay for Expanded Review of Use Permit Compliance

West County Times, Thu, Jul. 11, 2002

The City Council wants to broaden the scope of a review of General Chemical Corp. and says the company should pay the additional costs or face the prospect of losing a use permit it needs to operate its Castro Street plant.

Peter Hass, a Richmond attorney for General Chemical, told the council Tuesday the company is amenable to the expanded review that would assess the plant's compliance with the conditions of the city-issued use permit. But he said the company has yet to say whether or not it will cover the additional costs of the expanded review.

In January, General Chemical responded to the threat of a similar permit review by agreeing to pay for a consultant to study its management and safety practices.

Originally estimated to cost between $60,000 and $80,000, the cost is now pegged near $142,000, said Lewis Pascalli, Jr., director of Contra Costa County's Hazardous Materials Program.

An oversight committee of residents and city, county and company officials recently picked the consultant, Southern California-based MRS, to perform the audit, and a report is expected in October.

With the council's 7-0 vote Tuesday, Pascalli will now ask MRS if it is willing and able to undertake the added study and the city will ask the chemical company to pay the extra costs.

Councilman Tom Butt, who first broached the issue of a permit review last year, said he raised it again last week because the audit wasn't as far-reaching as he had hoped.

Butt said he wanted compliance issues to be a subject of the audit from the start and when it wasn't, "I was pretty upset about it.

"It just seems to me that, in light of the recent problems there, that the first question people ought to ask is, 'Are they complying with the conditions of their permit,'" Butt said Wednesday.

He said a quick review of the plant's 1995 use permit showed several health and safety conditions, which he said appear to have been violated given the recent string of releases.

The current audit was the product of meetings between city and company officials after a pair of serious sulfur trioxide releases last November prompted some council members to call for the plant to be shut down. The plant has since had one minor release after a sulfur fire in April.

Hass asked the council for two more weeks to allow his client time to decide how it will respond to the city's requests.

Greg Cannon covers Richmond. Reach him at 510-262-2713 or e-mail gcannon@cctimes.com.