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Design Review Board Scolds Chevron

The following is from yesterday’s Berkeley Daily Planet.

I have a correction to the E-FORUM Of Design Review, Code Enforcement and the City Attorney's Priorities, February 2, 2008. There were not three city attorneys at the Design Review Board hearing, only two. There were three Planning Department staff members, including the planning director.

I asked for a complete list of conditions of approval voted on by the Design Review Board on January 31, but I have yet to receive them.

Richmond Design Board Gives Qualified Nod to Chevron Plans

By Richard Brenneman (02-05-08)

Richmond’s Design Review Board (DRB) voted to approve Chevron’s plans to upgrade its refinery, but before the vote was taken Thursday night, few folks had anything nice to say about the world’s seventh largest corporation.

The DRB’s approval was hedged with a set of lengthy conditions after members accused the firm of arrogance and indifference to the community.

“You got greedy,” said Ted J. Smith, the board’s oldest member. “All you’ve done is take out of this community and screw us every time you get the chance.”

Smith, an African American, chided the company because, he said, none of the Chevron representatives at the meeting “looks like me.”

Chevron Vice President of Marketing Curt Anderson, a former manager of the Richmond refinery, kept his composure, as did the other members of the oil company’s contingent who appeared before the board.

“We are very pleased and excited about the project and the benefits that will come from it,” Anderson said.

But board members and the overwhelming majority who rose to make public comment voiced skepticism and criticism of the oil company, which the next morning would announce record profits of $18.7 billion.

The DRB meeting was marked by tensions between the board and city staff, with two attorneys and Richard Mitchell, the city’s director of building and development.

While board members said they were entitled to consider issues of public safety, the repeated advice from staff was to focus solely on design issues.

Citing a charge to the board by Mayor Gayle McLaughlin to consider public health and safety issues in their deliberations, board member Donald L. Woodrow repeatedly raised his concerns that Chevron hadn’t provided adequate information about seismic hazards.

Woodrow insisted the company provide extensive mapping of the soils down to bedrock at the refinery site and reports on how soils and the plant would be affected by the impacts of a major earthquake on the Hayward Fault.

“It will be earthquake-safe,” promised Dean O’Hair, the oil company’s Richmond external affairs director. He said all construction would meet current building and seismic codes.

Woodrow was less than reassured, and the proposed condition remained when it came time for a vote.

Chair Bob Avellar said he wanted approval contingent on the company’s grant of access to complete the last unfinished stretch of the Bay Trail in the city.

During the public comment period earlier in the meeting, Bruce Beyaert, an ardent supporter of the trail and chair of the Trails for Richmond Action Committee, said negotiations with the company had stalled for two years, only to be rekindled as refinery project approval deadlines approached.

Woodrow said the company should provide the access, co-fund the design costs and pay for operating costs, all of which were included in his motion for approval

Member Diane Bloom added the proviso that the trail-siting decision would come back to the board for approval.

Avellar added conditions for approving geodesic domes the company planned to install on new storage tanks included in the project, and called for an increase in the number of trees planted to screen both the tanks and the periphery of the refinery.

When she suggested the board ask the company to plant trees in other cities and outside Contra Costa County wherever winds carried particulates from the refinery, Smith shook his head, saying “I won’t vote for trees outside Richmond. I’m not looking out for anybody else.”

Woodward then said the company should also re-examine options for using the site to generate solar and wind power to offset some of the company’s energy needs.

Comments heated

Most of the public comments earlier in the meeting were critical of the oil company. While most focused on concerns about pollution, one speaker raised a key financial issue.

“I’m concerned about the very nice-looking hokum we’ve received,” said Contra Costa County Assessor Gus S. Kramer, speaking from the audience.

He blasted the company’s expensive color mailing which promised “millions in new revenues for the City of Richmond” from the project.

He countered the corporate claim by citing the company’s own appeals to have the refinery’s property taxes slashed by two thirds for the prior three tax years.

“I don’t want you to think that Richmond is going to get this windfall of services,” Kramer said.

He got no response from company officials.

Chevron’s appeal to the county’s Assessment Appeals Board was filed in December and seeks tax reductions for 2004-2006 that would result in a rebate of $60 million.

Against an assessed value of $2.5 billion in 2004, the oil company seeks a reduction to $600 million, with comparable figures of $2.6 billion and $940 million for 2005 and $2.7 billion and $1.4 billion for 2006.

Chevron’s only supporters were from the business and labor communities, while many nearby residents raised fears of toxic contamination and complaints of strong odors from the plant.

Henry Clark of the West County Toxics Coalition charged Chevron with perpetrating environmental racism, which he defined as the practice of siting dangerous plants near poor communities of color.

Anyone who voted in favor of the company would also be guilty, he said.

Chevron officials said the replacement of two “reformers” designed to raise fuel octane content, along with the refinery’s power plant and its hydrogen production facility and power plant, won’t increase pollution from the facility.

The changes, they said, will replace outmoded and inefficient facilities with modern, less polluting equipment.

Chevron VP Anderson said the result will produce no increase in greenhouse gases, and that significant emissions of volatile organic compounds cited in the project’s draft environmental impact report had been “reduced to insignificance.”

Company officials said concerns raised by audience and board members that the refinery might be used to process Canadian tar sands were unfounded, since the plant could only process lighter forms of crude oil.

Sherry Padgett, one of the leaders in the drive to clean up polluted sites in southeast Richmond, said she was concerned because she hadn’t heard estimates of how much additional toxic waste might be stockpiled or buried in the community, and said the documentation before the board didn’t address multiple breaches of a contaminated pond near the shoreline.

Asked about her concerns by Smith moments later, Chevron’s O’Hair dismissed them as “not part of this project” and “not part of Chevron property.”

Board member Bloom said she was distressed at having to vote on a complex project less than a week after receiving a massive amount of documentation. She said she had perused one massive volume only to discover shortly before the meetings that there were two more volumes on a computer disk affixed to the back of the volume.

One major concern repeatedly raised by board members was the vagueness of Chevron’s plans and their lack of detail. While some members at first indicated a desire to spend more time looking through the documentation and even floated the idea of outright rejection, they accepted the staff recommendation to add conditions—something they couldn’t do if they voted against the project.

The design board is slated for abolition, as the result of a contentious City Council vote.

The next step in the project is a public meeting called by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, which will be held starting at 6 p.m. Feb. 13 meeting at the RRC Social Hall, 3230 MacDonald Ave.

Within city government, the proposal now goes to the Planning Commission, with a likely appeal to the City Council regardless of which way the commissioners come down.