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Those Who Ignore History Are Doomed to Repeat It

For those history buffs among us, I have compiled a collection of newspaper clippings from January 1994 describing the chain of events that led to the Richmond City Council unanimously approving a Conditional Use Permit (CUP) for what was euphemistically referred to as Chevron’s “Clean Fuels Project.” Click here for the full collection of these stories, which make fascinating reading in the light of currently unfolding events.


The context was eerily similar to the “Energy and Hydrogen Renewal Project” that is heading for a Planning Commission hearing later this month.


In 1994, the Richmond Planning Commission, boldly and wisely, approved a CUP for the Chevron Clean Fuels Project, adopting a condition requiring Chevron to contribute $1.8 million per year for 30 years ($54 million) to “reduce pollution and compensate neighbors for dangers posed by increased industrialization” (West County Times, January 22, 1994).


Chevron successfully appealed the decision, after using a combination of intimidation and money offered to fund the pet projects of several City Council members.


In an article headlined “Secret Talks May Avoid Suits Over Chevron Payments,” (West County Times, January 22, 1994), the Richmond City Council is described as working out an alternative proposal “…in secret by City Council members, City staff and Chevron officials in hopes of attracting the six votes necessary to overturn the commission’s Dec. 16 decisions…”


Ultimately, the City Council unanimously sustained Chevron’s appeal and settled for $4.2 million in “donations” that Chevron insisted on calling “totally unconnected to the CUP.” The “financially troubled Martin Luther King, Jr., Family Health Center got $2.1 million and a mobile health van, the emergency warning system got $1.4 million and PAL got $400,000 to create a school mentoring program.


Despite pleas by hundreds of Richmond residents and several environmental organizations, including West County Toxics Coalition, in a City Council meeting attended by 1,000 persons in the Memorial Auditorium, the deal was successfully brokered by the City Manager, Floyd Johnson and the Richmond Planning Department and voted in by the City Council. In my opinion, the deal was a blatant violation of the Brown Act.


Of the main characters in what I still maintain was a sellout, City Manager Floyd Johnson was later fired by the City Council; Refinery Manager Mike Hannan has apparently retired somewhere else; “Refinery Spokesman Hal Holt” is deceased; but three members of the 1994 City Council remain in place. “Business leaders applauded the council for overturning a Planning Commission decision they thought would scare businesses away,” said the West County Times on January 26, 1994. Chamber of Commerce Chairman, John Mejia, quoted in the Times, said he “knows of at least two companies that delayed large expansion projects because they were worried that the City might slap unreasonable conditions on their projects.”


Funny, those “large expansion projects” never materialized.


Of the opponents, Henry Clark still ably heads the West County Toxics Coalition; Richard Drury, formerly of Communities for a Better Environment (CBE), has joined the legal team of Adams Broadwell, which has filed major objections to the EIR for the Energy and Hydrogen Renewal Project; Denny Larson formerly of Communities for a Better Environment is now executive director of Global Community Monitor, and I was elected to the City Council in 1995, motivated in no small part by my outrage over the 1994 City Council capitulation.


In the Article, Fairness Key in Dispute Over Chevron Project (West County Times, January 22, 1994), I was quoted:


“Tom Butt, an architect and community activist, argued that this requirement would correct the unfairness of Chevron making millions of dollars a year in Richmond while giving only a tiny fraction of those dollars back to the community that is most affected by its pollution, spills and upsets.”


When the Planning commission came through, the San Francisco Chronicle quoted me:


“We never thought we’d get this through the planning Commission,’ said Tom Butt, a Point Richmond architect who helped draft the list of conditions. ‘We were preparing for litigation, and guess what – everything flip-flopped.”


How will the 2008 replay of this 1994 debacle play out? Stay tuned.