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Media Coverage
Industry Buildings Are Facing Scrutiny
September 13, 1998


Sunday, September 13, 1998
Section: Contra Costa
Page: A29
Ariel Ambruster

For decades, Contra Costa County has exempted industrial plants from the building inspections that other businesses or homeowners have to undergo.

The reason? A fear of 1960s-style radical terrorism.

Industry leaders were worried that if their detailed building plans became public records, someone might make use of them to spark explosions or fires.

Now county supervisors are considering shrinking that "industrial security" loophole. Tuesday, the board will consider an ordinance requiring oil refineries and chemical plants to get building permits and undergo building inspections, just like everybody else.

In Contra Costa, as in other regions, most property owners must submit detailed plans, pay fees and open their doors to housing inspectors if they add a room, build a swimming pool, add electrical wires or replace sewer pipes.

The inspections are designed to make sure that the new work is done safely.

But oil refineries and chemical plants have been exempted from electrical, plumbing, grading and other permits and inspections if the owners of the plants believe that submitting detailed plans "would prejudice necessary industrial security."

The industrial plants are instead allowed to hire their own engineers or architects who certify that all the construction work complies with building codes.

Shell and Tosco refinery spokespeople said Friday they didn't know why their plants might have required a special exemption for "industrial security."

"In the 1960s there was concern that some radical group, such as the Weathermen, might use public records of industrial facility design to plan sabotage," Richmond City Councilman Tom Butt said in a report analyzing area industrial building permits.

Still, plants in the rest of California have managed to exist without such an exemption.

According to a 1996 county survey, no other city or county has a building permit exemption for security reasons. Only Richmond, according to the survey, also allowed oil refineries to do self-inspections.

Supervisor Mark DeSaulnier of Concord has pushed for a change in the county building permit law. The effort is separate from county attempts to regulate operations of refinery processing units for safety reasons. Those units would not be subject to building inspections, which would look at electrical wiring, structural engineering and other aspects of plant construction.

Richmond City Councilwoman Donna Powers, who had joined with Butt last year in a failed attempt to change that city's permit practices, said if an oil refinery is self-inspecting, that means it is not paying the building permit fees that average residents have to pay.

"My feeling is, as a citizen of Richmond, if I have to replace my water heater, which costs about $150, I go to the city and get a permit, and the permit is $50, a third of what it would cost," she said. "And at Chevron, Tosco, and the other refineries, they don't have to do that.."

Under the proposed county changes, industrial plants would still operate under looser rules than those that govern other businesses and homeowners.

Like Exxon in Benicia, the plants could get yearly building permits that cover whatever construction they undertake during those 365 days. The industrial plants would report four times a year to the county on what construction work they've performed, and the Building Inspection Department would make inspection tours of the plants four times a year.

Building Inspection Director Carlos Baltodano, who wrote the proposed law, was unavailable for comment Friday on its implications.

His second-in-command, Mickie Perez, said she hadn't had an opportunity to study the final draft of the law, but was familiar with what the department hopes to accomplish.