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Media Coverage
Debate Ignited On Safety Laws
March 27, 1999



Saturday, March 27, 1999
Section: news
Page: A03
Shawn Masten

RICHMOND A city councilman said Friday that he wants Contra Costa County to oversee safety at the Chevron refinery in the wake of Thursday's explosion and fire at the Richmond refinery.

Councilman Tom Butt said he will recommend Tuesday that the council adopt the county's industrial safety ordinance and give the county the authority to enforce it in Richmond.

But it's questionable whether Butt's proposal will get the support of a majority of Richmond council members, and Chevron officials said it is too early for them to decide whether they would support a change in the law.

Because Chevron is in Richmond's city limits, it is not governed by the industrial safety ordinances recently passed by the county Board of Supervisors.

Immediately after the explosion Thursday, Butt who lives near the refinery in Point Richmond said he would back passage of a city industrial safety ordinance. But Friday, he advocated simply adopting the county's ordinance and giving county officials the authority to oversee it.

Under the county rules, local health inspectors are allowed into refineries after an accident to investigate its cause. But Chevron's Richmond refinery is the only one in Contra Costa not subject to a local safety ordinance.

"Right now we could have a team of experts out there under the auspices of the county doing a third-party safety audit and making a determination of why that accident happened and what can be done to prevent similar accidents," Butt said. "We can't do that now."

Butt also said he wants Chevron to establish a Richmond foundation, funded at $2 million a year for 30 years to provide for health, education and economic development projects; a new utility tax to increase the burden on Chevron; and a discount at Chevron service stations for Richmond residents.

The calls for third-party inspections of the refinery come at a time when Chevron is being sued by a former employee who claims he was fired in 1997 for bringing safety violations at the plant to the city's attention.

"Until you bring in a third party, like I did at the Richmond refinery, to inspect the facility where they can look at it without fear of retaliation, it's only then that you're going to get the true story," said Terence Keefe, former deputy building inspector.

But Vice Mayor Irma Anderson said she first wants to know what went wrong before making decisions about a new law or outside inspections. Her comments have been echoed by other council members.

Bill Steelman, the refinery's general manager, said it is too early to speculate on proposals by Butt or other politicians to revamp Richmond's safety regulations.

"Since we really don't know what happened, we can't speculate," said Steelman. "We really need to understand what happened."