|Chevron and Richmond
November 19, 2005
The relationship between Richmond and Chevron may have recently moved onto ground never before plowed. What was for nearly 100 years a very cozy relationship began to slip in the late 1990s and the first years of the second Millennium as Chevron distanced themselves from a long tradition of social and governmental involvement in the City. For example, Chevron refinery managers were a mainstay of the Richmond Rotary Club for decades. In fact, a former refinery manager, Carl Raefus, was a former president of Richmond Rotary and served as “secretary for life” for many years thereafter. Dorr Etzler, former head of Chevron Research, served as both club president and district governor.
Similarly, Richmond’s top Chevron managers used to serve as officers and directors of the Richmond Art Center Board and other civic non-profits. Sometime in the 1990s, after Chevron’s major modernization was completed, the refinery manager simply disappeared off Richmond radar, to be replaced by “external affairs” people who were, themselves, often hard to find until they showed up on TV explaining that the latest release constituted no hazard to the public. Hands on participation in Richmond community organizations flagged. Monetary contributions still flowed, but the magnitude was noticeably reduced and the distribution diminished. The official word was that the Richmond refinery was in financial trouble with the home office and had to concentrate on production lest it be closed. Community engagement was viewed by management as frivolous and indulgent.
Perhaps the relationship between Richmond officials reached a nadir in 2004 when Chevron actually sued the City (and lost) over Point Molate. Previously, Chevron had stiffed the City over a half year of increased utility user taxes. What was once a solid relationship with the City Council began to rapidly unravel.
When several City Council members tried to repeal the Certified Inspection Program in 1997, it went nowhere (see news clips from 1997 that follow). Simply adding an audit function barely passed in 1967 on a 6-3 vote with Bates, Griffin and Anderson voting no and Butt, Powers, Corbin, Evans, Marquez and McIntosh voting yes.
When the Certified Inspection Program came up earlier this week, the City Council voted unanimously to repeal it, including Bates, Griffin and Anderson, who had previously opposed even adding the audit function. The City Council has never in over 100 years done anything like that when Chevron is concerned. Even the West County Times, usually a conservative bastion, editorialized in favor of the repeal.
In the long run, however, the Certified Inspection Program is not so much about substance as about perceptions. Although Chevron and the City abused it (some believe egregiously) for decades, there is little evidence of abuse from a building code enforcement standpoint in the last eight years. My motivations for voting to repeal it are that I believe everyone should be treated equally and that there is a fatal flaw in the CIP that undermines CEQA review of projects, already a sore point with many and an abuse that was recently confirmed by the California Court of Appeals. It also appears to be contrary to California law pertaining to the circumstances under which cities can amend the California Building Standards Code --- but that’s another story.
The good news is that Chevron seems to be knocking on the door to join the community once again. Dean O’Hair and Jim Brumfield are smiling a lot more and have become Chevron’s kindler and gentler community faces – even if the refinery manager is still invisible. Maybe there isn’t even a refinery manager, and a computer in San Ramon controls the whole thing over the Internet. In a previous era, Chevron would have packed the City Council chamber with hundreds of employees, vendors, retirees, pensioners, and recipients of charitable largesse to defend Chevron to the bitter end and protest repeal of the CIP. Instead, only Dean O’Hair spoke, and only half heartedly it seemed. The same night, Chevron presented a check for $100,000 to the Richmond Library, and donations of similar magnitude have been forthcoming to a variety of City and non-profit causes. I actually felt a tinge of sympathy – or maybe even guilt – when I joined my colleagues in that unanimous vote.
What would really be nice is if Chevron would take a small fraction of the tens of billions in recent windfall profits and build an enduring monument to themselves in Richmond – maybe something like the Chevron Community and Swim Center at the Richmond Municipal Natatorium or the Chevron Library.
Chevron's sweet deal
HOW'S THIS FOR A CASE of letting the fox guard the hen house? For the past 13 years, Richmond has been allowing Chevron to issue the building permits for its construction projects at the refinery and conduct its own inspections to verify that the work complies with building and safety standards.
Silly us. We thought that was what the city's planning department was supposed to do. As it turns out, in an effort to reduce the burden of inspecting hundreds of minor building and maintenance projects at Chevron, the city instituted the Certified Inspection Program in 1992. The program called for the city building inspector to deputize a Chevron employee to carry out project inspections and to issue permits. Chevron, which is the only entity that uses the self-inspection program, has been doing so ever since.
The way things are now, virtually no city oversight exists over refinery projects. Some projects may have even avoided review under the California Environmental Quality Act. This should raise safety concerns.
Also, allowing Chevron to conduct its own inspections unfairly cuts the city and residents out of the process. Chevron's self-inspection and permitting came to light earlier this year when the Contra Costa Building and Trades Council asked the planning department for permit documents on a turbo generator under construction at the refinery. The planning department did not release the documents until seven months later. When it did, they showed the generator had been built without city approval, design review or environmental review.
On Tuesday, the City Council instructed the city attorney to write a new ordinance that will ensure greater oversight over Chevron projects. At the meeting, 23 people spoke in favor of the repeal. Only one, a Chevron employee, spoke up for the existing ordinance.
Chevron officials say self-inspection is not uncommon and is consistent with the state building code. While that may be true, the potential for conflict under the existing ordinance make it imperative that it be changed.
While there is no evidence of wrongdoing on Chevron's part, it makes no sense for the city to trust any entity to police itself.
At the very least, Richmond should set guidelines for making sure that any significant projects come before the city's own review process to make sure the public is involved.
Repeal puts closer watch on Chevron
on Thu, Nov. 17, 2005
After 23 speakers urged repeal of the ordinance, the council on Tuesday directed the city attorney to compose an alternate ordinance that would assure greater oversight of Chevron's construction projects. One speaker, a Chevron employee, spoke in favor of the ordinance.
The council will take action on the new ordinance next month.
The Certified Inspection Program was instituted in 1992 and was designed to lessen the city's burden of inspecting the hundreds of maintenance and building projects, many of them minor, that occur each year at the refinery.
A Chevron employee deputized by the city building inspector would carry out project inspections and issue permits. The city would review the projects once they were completed.
Chevron is the only entity in Richmond that uses the self-inspection program.
Several council members said the project gives Chevron too much discretion in constructing projects and that in some cases the projects may have been able to avoid review under the California Environmental Quality Act, which examines project code standards, environmental impacts and project alternatives.
"The more I learned about this program, the more concerned I became," said Councilwoman Maria Viramontes who co-sponsored the repeal with three other council members. "Normally building permits are issued prior to construction and this program did not guarantee that."
Chevron's self-inspection and permitting status came to light earlier this year when the Contra Costa Building and Trades Council asked the Richmond planning department for permit documents related to a turbo generator that was under construction at the refinery.
The planning department withheld the documents for more than seven months, according to Greg Feere, the chief executive officer of the trades union.
When the city finally released permit and inspection reports in August, the documents showed that the generator had been built without city approval, design review or environmental review .
"The city was sandbagging us in violation of state law," Feere said,. "When they finally released them, we wondered how a major project like this could be built without any impartial review. It's a classic case of the fox guarding the hen house."
The city has since revised its public records policy to assure that information requests are responded to within the time prescribed by state law.
Feere said the trades council requested the turbo generator documents because of the large number of out-of-state, nonunion workers that Chevron brought in to work on the project.
Through the law firm of Adams Broadwell Joseph & Cardozo, the trades council requested dozens of Chevron building permits going back to 1993, when the city first adopted the program. The documents showed that it was standard for city officials to trust Chevron to follow building and safety standards and then review them after construction.
The problem is that if the city planning department doesn't know about construction projects prior to construction, it's impossible to request environmental impact reports, said attorney Kevin Golden, who represents the trades union.
Chevron External Affairs Manager Dean O'Hair said the program is consistent with state law and that Chevron has not violated any building codes or avoided state environmental reviews.
"This is not some exotic process that was created for Chevron," he said. "It's pretty clear there's a misunderstanding here about what the program is. Self-inspection is not uncommon and it is consistent with the state building code."
O'Hair added that Chevron will comply with whatever inspection ordinance the City Council adopts.
New City Attorney John Eastman agreed that the ordinance, in itself, did not allow Chevron to avoid environmental impact reports.
Councilman Tom Butt, who tried to repeal the self-inspection ordinance in 1997, said it doesn't appear there has been any significant breach of state building codes.
"It's more a case of whether the ordinance makes sense," he said. "The way it is now it's flawed because the public and the city are cut out of the process until it's too late."
Contact John Geluardi at 510-262-2787 or at firstname.lastname@example.org