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Richmond plant's fate up in the air
December 13, 2001
City leaders may consider making General Chemical change the factory's function

Richmond leaders seek enforcement at plant

They reconsider whether they want to keep General Chemical

By Peter Felsenfeld

RICHMOND -- Looking back on a year marred by toxic releases, city leaders are seriously re-evaluating whether they want to keep General Chemical as an industrial neighbor.

After passing an industrial safety ordinance, the City Council decided to take advantage of an existing regulatory weapon Tuesday night, directing the Planning Commission to look into revoking or changing the company's operating permit.

Next, Councilman Nat Bates requested financial information so the council could determine whether General Chemical's tax contribution justifies the health risks posed by the plant.

"I don't think we can just close them down without some in-depth analysis," Bates said. "I'm hoping the results will show General Chemical is not much of a financial contributor, especially when compared to the potential problems our citizens face every day."

After reviewing the financial data, Bates said he would urge his colleagues to insist that General Chemical change the plant function from sulfuric acid production to nontoxic manufacturing.

General Chemical officials did not return calls Wednesday.

Anna Vega, Richmond's director of financial services, said General Chemical has 36 employees and is the city's 87th top sales tax generator. The company is one of six chemical firms, which generate a combined total of $92,377 in sales tax per year, Vega said.

Richmond's total sales tax revenue from October 2000 through September 2001 was $12.2 million, Vega said.

The company also pays small amounts in other fees and taxes to the city.

The community emergency notification system has been activated twice this year after sulfur dioxide and sulfur trioxide releases from the General Chemical stacks.

Richmond's new industrial safety ordinance, which could go into effect next week after a second reading, outlines strategies to prevent accidents and gives the City Council authority to require corrective measures after a serious release.

Councilman Tom Butt, who called for the revocation/modification hearing, said conditional use permits also provide a potent opportunity for regulation.

"If there's a violation of a condition, you can simply jerk the permit and then you put them out of business," Butt said. "It's probably more powerful than the entire industrial safety ordinance."

Richmond's municipal code states that a conditional use permit can be challenged when a facility is "conducted or maintained so as to be detrimental to the public health, welfare or safety so as to be deemed a nuisance."

At the very least, Butt said he wanted the Planning Commission to enforce a previously ignored permit provision requiring annual plant inspections by commissioners. The panel will consider the item at its Jan. 3 meeting.

Last month's serious toxic release, followed by a scary but benign release the next day, rekindled deep-rooted community fears in areas downwind from the Chevron refinery and the General Chemical plant, said Henry Clark, executive director of the West County Toxics Coalition.

Residents applaud the council's commitment to safety, Clark said, but remain skeptical about consistent enforcement over time.

"We can't help wondering when the next big one is going to occur," Clark said. "If the industrial safety ordinance is adhered to, it should reduce chemical accidents, and that's ultimately what we want."

Peter Felsenfeld covers Richmond. Reach him at 510-262-2725 or pfelsenfeld@cctimes.com .