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Powers, Butt Attack Chevron Self-Inspection Law
March 6, 1997


Thursday, March 6, 1997
Section: News
Page: A01
Caption: PHOTO. A view of Chevron in Richmond. (MARK DuFRENE/Times). 

RICHMOND A city policy that allows Chevron to inspect its own buildings is drawing fire from some City Council members and environmental activists who say the company is hiding serious safety problems at its Richmond research division. 

They accuse the company of firing an inspector who wrote up the company last year for violations that would cost more than $15 million to correct. Company officials acknowledge the problems were the most serious recorded during the 10 years the city has allowed self-inspections. 

Councilman Tom Butt and Vice Mayor Donna Powers, who presented their charges at a news conference Tuesday, said they will introduce legislation to transfer inspections back to the city or to an independent agency hired by the City Council. 

"It's like the fox guarding the henhouse," Butt said. 

Chevron spokesman Hal Holt denied that the company fired the inspector or let him go out of revenge. He was laid off with 180 other employees as part of a company restructuring, he said. 

Holt said the company has worked diligently with the city to make sure its facilities are safe. 

"It's absolutely ludicrous that we are being accused of a cover-up," Holt said. "Safety is our No. 1 concern." 

He said the problems noted in the 1996 report could be attributed to codes changing since the buildings went up. 

He added that Chevron is in the process of giving inspections back to the city since there is little construction planned at its facilities in the coming years. 

At issue is a 1987 ordinance that allows Chevron's Research and Technology Co. to inspect Chevron facilities and report violations to city building officials. The company's five inspectors are officially working for the city but are paid and supervised by Chevron. 

Butt and Powers released city and Chevron documents showing numerous problems with electrical systems and safety equipment at the facility. 

Fire alarms 

The documents included a report to the city by one of the company's former inspectors, Terence Keefe. Keefe outlined a series of possible violations from overloaded electrical outlets to outdated fire alarms and fire extinguishers. 

Keefe could not be reached for comment. 

The alleged violations were viewed Oct. 15 at a few of the buildings at the research division. Though he did not inspect all of the company's buildings, Keefe's report states the problems were probably "prevalent throughout" the facility. 

Keefe, a certified electrical engineer according to the California Bureau of Consumer Affairs, was laid off by Chevron on Dec. 31, two months after the inspection. The company restructured Research and Technology late last year, and Chevron told Keefe on Dec. 4 he would not be returning to his job. 

Butt and Powers said they see something more sinister than restructuring. 

"A strange thing happened: A deputy inspector actually took his job seriously," Butt said. "He was a highly qualified individual and he issued $15 million in code violations. So they fired him." 

Holt said Keefe is still being paid and is in a pool of employees who may be offered a job with Chevron if a place can be found for him. 

"In the Chevron world, we want employees to notify us of deficiencies," Holt said. "He would not be punished for deficiencies." 

Told the city 

He acknowledged that inspectors have never found such serious violations in the 10 years the company has been inspecting itself. When the problems were found, Holt said, a Chevron manager reported the violations to city officials. He said the company has all along given quarterly reports to the city on its building inspections. 

City officials had the option of sending their own workers to review inspections by Chevron employees, Holt said. 

Chevron has asked the city for a seven-year grace period to clean up some of the violations found during the October inspection, according to city documents. Holt said many of the buildings cited are between 14 and 60 years old and do not conform to current codes. 

"The codes were different then," he said. 

In a statement, the company said it is spending millions to upgrade wiring and modernize fire safety equipment. 

Powers said an independent agency hired by the city would be the best judge of whether Chevron was obeying codes. 

Environmental activists like Julia May of Citizens for a Better Environment agree. 

"We need independent overview," May said. 

Powers and activists acknowledge they are also uneasy with the city taking over the program. They say Chevron's political influence reaches into city government; they worry city inspectors will be subject to pressure from elected officials who have received contributions from the company. 

"A lot of city people work very closely with Chevron," said Lucille Allen of the West County Toxics Coalition, "so I'm not sure that would be any better." 

Any plan to restructure the program faces a council that has been unwilling to tamper with the inspections. A similar proposal by Butt died in committee last year. 

However, Powers and Butt said they would re-introduce legislation to repeal the ordinance in the next day or two. Powers said she believes four council members would be willing to support the plan. Getting the fifth and deciding vote, however, could be tough in an election year, she said. 

Similar ordinances exist for refineries in Benicia and unincorporated areas of Contra Costa County. Richmond's ordinance is a carbon copy of one used in El Segundo. 

In 1987, Richmond council members said they wanted the plan because city building inspectors weren't qualified to inspect the refinery buildings. The council said the city didn't have the money to hire and train employees to handle the safety program. 

Under the agreement, Chevron paid for the inspectors and gets a break on building fees. It also made a one-time payment to the city to make up for building fees that had not been paid to that point.