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Media Coverage
Richmond Fights For Hazard Team
February 25, 1997


Tuesday, February 25, 1997
Section: News
Page: A01

RICHMOND Fire Department administrators want to douse a four-alarm political blaze involving a new state program that could take oversight of the city's toxic materials out their hands. 

In a city where chemical spills and smells have churned public outrage, Richmond officials say they don't want anyone else in control of hazardous materials regulations. Residents, they contend, are best served by city firefighters overseeing businesses that use or produce toxic substances. 

Contra Costa County now oversees hazardous materials monitoring countywide, but contracted with Richmond for some inspections in the city limits. Richmond is appealing its failure to obtain state permission to create its own program, including the ability to set fees to fund it. 

It has allies among environmental activists, business owners and officials at the San Ramon Valley fire district, who also want to retain control of hazardous materials inspections in the communities they serve. 

Supporters argue that citizens have more influence when the regulations are kept local. Denny Larson of Citizens for a Better Environment, a San Francisco-based environmental group, said he believes West County has less political power than other parts of Contra Costa. That, in turn, means county officials are less likely to give the region their full attention, he said. 

"Contra Costa is an awful big county, and in my 10 years of working there, West County routinely gets the short end of the stick," said Larson. "It's possible for people to get lost in the maze when things go to a county level." 

Contra Costa County officials want to keep the power for themselves. They say they have more experience and are better equipped to handle the inspections. So far, the state which has final say over who oversees the regulations agrees with the county. The county will thus retain control of monitoring, and Richmond may lose the portion of the job it now has. 

Some in Richmond question the city's motives. They wonder if it's necessarily a good idea to have such close ties between the city and the businesses it regulates. 

Other critics believe the city could have won control if it had more effectively played state politics. 

At issue is a state program that took effect Jan. 1. With approval from the state Environmental Protection Agency, local governments can create a Certified Unified Program Agency, or CUPA. 

CUPAs are designed as a one-stop service for businesses that use or produce toxic materials. Prior to the program, industries faced inspections from as many as six government agencies. That caused confusion for business owners who were unsure whose orders they should obey. 

Under CUPA, 2,000 businesses in Contra Costa County 400 in Richmond alone can expect environmental inspections, rules and fees to be administered by a single agency. 

Richmond officials thought they had a good shot at getting their own agency. The city has one of the highest concentrations of industry in the state, and it had handled environmental inspections on behalf of the county. 

"We have been operating three of the six programs (that are to be unified) under the CUPA," Richmond Fire Chief Alford Nero said. "We felt we had the expertise to oversee the program." 

But in January, the state EPA announced it would allow just one program in Contra Costa administered by the county. Workers in the county Health Services Department's hazardous materials division would oversee businesses that generate and treat hazardous waste, above- and below-ground storage tanks and a mountain of state-required environmental paperwork. 

The announcement stunned Richmond officials. Fire Department administrators told the City Council they were "95 percent" sure the city would win a CUPA prior to the announcement. 

Aside from taking environmental regulations out of the hands of city administrators, the decision also jeopardized more than $400,000 used to fund the team that responds to hazardous materials emergencies. 

Prior to the EPA ruling, the city's contract with the county funded the hazardous materials team. Now, union firefighters fear that the county will create their own team and run it from Martinez. 

City leaders, however, said they aren't giving up on the contract or the CUPA. 

Richmond along with San Ramon Valley fire district appealed the EPA's decision at a two-day series of hearings last week in Berkeley. And behind the scenes, officials in Richmond and San Ramon are pointing to the county's past record on hazardous materials to try to make their case. 

Among the documents they're using to try to make their point is a 1993 county grand jury report excoriating Contra Costa's hazardous materials program. The grand jury said the program was mismanaged and did little to reduce environmental risks in the county. 

Officials in Richmond and San Ramon also contend county officials don't have a personal relationship with the businesses in their communities, which could mean they are less aware of potential problems. 

Industry leaders in Richmond agree. They've testified on behalf of the city and written letters to the state backing the city's efforts. 

"We believe that local firefighters are the closest to us," said Hal Holt, a spokesman for Chevron's Richmond refinery. "They have done our inspections." 

Larson also believes the city is better informed about what's happening at the refineries and chemical plants that dot the city's east side. The farther away agencies are from the businesses they regulate, the fewer chances citizens have to comment, he says. 

But Larson, a frequent critic of the county's pollution-control record, nonetheless said pointing to the grand jury report is unfair. Though he supports Richmond's efforts, he said the county is perfectly capable of administering the program in the city. 

"There's been significant progress since that grand jury report came out," Larson said. "I would not be uncomfortable with the county handling the CUPA." 

He believes along with Richmond and San Ramon officials that politics played more of a role in the EPA's decision than the environment. 

"Richmond is farther from the governor's politics than Contra Costa County," Larson said. "It's not exactly a bastion for Republican donors." 

But some believe Richmond officials should have known they were at a political disadvantage. Councilman Nat Bates is livid with city officials for not pushing council members and staffers to use their state connections to lobby the EPA. 

"They didn't follow up," Bates said. 

Others are wary of Richmond's motives. 

Henry Clark of the West County Toxics Coalition, a Richmond-based environmental group, said he's concerned that Richmond fire officials may be willing to allow major employers to skate during inspections. 

"There's some merit in the arguments for local control," Clark said. "But the county has been working on some stronger regulations. (Industry) may be feeling their influence slipping at the county level. I'm taking a wait-and-see approach. If the city gets it, they're going to be held responsible to get the job done." 

Such caution extends even to some on the City Council. 

"I have a suspicion that there's a hidden agenda there," Councilman Tom Butt said. 

Contra Costa health officials argue Richmond and San Ramon don't have the resources to handle the program. Richmond's inch-thick application for the CUPA is laced with references to employees that need to be hired and ordinances that must to be passed before CUPA can be implemented. 

"In Contra Costa County, we have for 10 years been solely responsible for these kinds of programs," said Lew Pascalli, county deputy director for hazardous materials. 

Though the city has run some past environmental programs for the county, Pascalli argues that complete county control of the program would create "less fractionalization" for businesses. 

"If local control were really the issue, then every city in the county would have applied," Pascalli said. 

Pascalli also said he doubts industry support in Richmond is as strong as city officials contend. 

"You have some major facilities over there in Richmond, and because of the political nature of things, they support the city," Pascalli said. 

Should the county prevail, it stands to collect approximately $3.7 million in CUPA fees from business. If Richmond were to win a CUPA, the county would still be able to administer programs in other areas, but it would lose the $1 million in fees collected from Richmond businesses. 

Pascalli, however, said money is not a motivating factor in the county's decision to oppose the city. 

In San Ramon, administrators said they haven't calculated how much the fire district would collect. However, Rick Terry, chief of code enforcement for the district, said the amount would "probably be significantly less than Richmond or the county." 

Terry said San Ramon is competing for the program to regulate small businesses in the district. Firefighters there are also interested in maintaining and expanding existing hazardous materials programs, he said. The district includes Danville and San Ramon and unincorporated areas such as Blackhawk and Alamo. 

Dan Pellisier, a state EPA spokesman, said the state used two criteria for picking agencies to handle a CUPA: whether agencies in a region were cooperating and whether they had the resources to handle the program. 

Pellisier said Contra Costa had already administered most of the region's hazardous materials policies and was well equipped to handle the CUPA. 

Richmond Fire Chief Nero said he's hoping the city can convince EPA doubters that it can work with the county to successfully implement the program. If it can't, the city will likely apply to become a "participating agency" under the county program. 

That could allow Richmond to retain the $400,000 it receives for its hazardous materials team. The deadline for applying for the participating agency status was Jan. 1, but city officials have asked the state for an extension. 

Nero and City Manager Floyd Johnson argued that they couldn't write their application to the county and mount an appeal at the same time. 

Union firefighters who work under Nero said they don't buy it. 

"It seems incredible to me and the rest of the executive board of the union that they didn't do something so routine as file an application for funding from the county," said Dan Colvick, a fire captain and union representative. "That's their job. I can't believe they were too busy to do it." 

The contract with the firefighter's union calls for a 5 percent stipend for workers who have hazardous materials training. If the $400,000 doesn't materialize, Colvick said, the city has two options: continue the benefit by tapping another part of the budget or disband the program. 

Nero and Johnson have told council members they are confident they can work out a deal with the county. If not, Johnson told council members the city "is not going to stop protecting the public interest." 

Pascalli said the county would be happy to "work together" with Richmond to determine if the city is eligible to become a participating agency. He said, however, the city has yet to make an official application, and time is running out. 

"We invited the city to write a note to become a participating agency," Pascalli said. "But they still have to apply."