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Opponents Sue Richmond, Chevron Over Plan to Replace Equipment at Refinery

Opponents sue Richmond, Chevron over plan to replace equipment at refinery

By Katherine Tam
West County Times

Article Launched: 09/04/2008 08:09:29 PM PDT

Three environmental groups sued the city of Richmond and Chevron Corp. on Thursday over the oil company's plan to retrofit its refinery, a project that opponents say could increase pollution and health problems.

West County Toxics Coalition of Richmond and Communities for a Better Environment and the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, both of Oakland, filed a petition in Contra Costa County Superior Court. The city's environmental review of Chevron's project is flawed and failed to disclose, analyze or mitigate all the potential impacts, the groups say.

The lawsuit comes six weeks after a sharply divided City Council approved the contentious project, along with a $61 million community benefits agreement for Chevron to give funds for public safety, job training, health care and local groups. Officials drew more public criticism July 29 after council members Nat Bates, Ludmyrna Lopez, John Marquez, Harpreet Sandhu and Maria Viramontes appointed Bates, Lopez and Sandhu with Marquez as an alternate to a committee that would disperse $10 million from Chevron to local groups.

Critics said it was inappropriate for officials seeking re-election to distribute money to the same groups from which they might seek support. The council majority disagreed, but yielded to public outcry Tuesday and proposed rescinding the appointments. The council vote to rescind was unanimous, with Councilman Tom Butt abstaining. (Due to an editing error,

Tuesday's vote was incorrect in Thursday's Times.)

That the Chevron issue eventually would escalate into a lawsuit surprises no one.

Pitched about four years ago, the oil giant's bid to replace its hydrogen plant, power plant and reformer to refine a wider range of crude touched off a firestorm of public debate, protests and speculation of expensive legal battles.

Refinery representatives maintain that their project would mean a safer, more efficient facility that would not hurt the public. But opponents don't believe Chevron. They say their research shows the project would allow refining of heavier, more contaminated crude that could increase pollution and greenhouse gases.

A council majority approved the project July 17 with about 70 provisions, including monitoring requirements and a limit on the amount of crude running through one piece of equipment regarded as key to refining.

"This is a responsible project," Lopez said the day of the approval.

But the provisions don't go far enough to safeguard residents, opponents say. They lobbied for a more comprehensive crude cap on the amount and type of crude Chevron could refine.

"The City Council is selling out our community, but our health is not for sale," Henry Clark, executive director of the West County Toxics Coalition, said Thursday.

Richmond City Attorney Scott Dickey said Thursday that he had not reviewed the lawsuit and had no immediate comment.

Chevron spokesman Dean O'Hair also had not seen the filing and declined to comment on the specifics. However, he defended the project, saying "the city's EIR after a 3-year review found that in fact there would be no adverse impacts."

The city could face additional legal hurdles. In an Aug. 15 letter, environmentalists claim Richmond violated the state's open meeting law because it did not put the community benefits agreement on the July 15 agenda when the two-day Chevron hearing began. The groups warned of a lawsuit if officials did not void the agreement.

The council gave final approval to the agreement Tuesday. The vote to approve the agreement was 5-3, with Bates, Lopez, Marquez, Sandhu and Viramontes voting yes. Mayor Gayle McLaughlin, Butt and Jim Rogers voted no. Tony Thurmond abstained.

The city did not violate state law because the agenda allowed the council to act on "modifications" when weighing a decision on the Chevron project, Dickey said.

Opponents have not decided whether to file additional lawsuits, such as on the community benefits agreement, said Will Rostov, an attorney for the nonprofit Earthjustice, which is representing the environmental groups in the lawsuit.

"We're keeping all our options on the table," added Greg Karras, a scientist with CBE.

Reach Katherine Tam at 510-262-2787 or ktam@bayareanewsgroup.com.