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Media Coverage
Refinery Relationship On The Rocks
March 28, 1999


Sunday, March 28, 1999
Section: Contra Costa
Page: A31
Joe Garofoli
Column: Joe Garofoli

After the Tosco explosion last month, we asked, "Is that refinery safe?" Thursday's explosion at the Chevron plant raises a tougher question. "Is it safe to live near any refinery?"

Have you had enough yet? Are you tired of living in a world of emergency warning sirens and shelter-in-place? Are you sick of worrying whether your house is downwind from that day's mysterious blast? Do you wonder what you're really breathing in day-in, day-out? Are you angry that despite what the refinery's flacks say in front of the TV cameras, things never seem to get better in your neighborhood?

Do you wonder what the ultimate explosion would do?

It is too simple and reactionary to say, "Close down the refineries." OK, then what? What do you do with 3,600 full-time refinery workers who'd be out of work in Contra Costa? Their jobs affect 9,000 others in the county. Besides, the refineries existed before the towns in most cases; the 'burbs grew up around them. And that's the problem with our marriage between Suburbia and Industry; one of us has grown and the other hasn't.

But we can't get stuck in the blame game. For now, we're stuck in this marriage, and divorce would be too painful. For now. However, it is time to rewrite our vows. But we've got to stay angry and not just cool off until the next accident.

Our history
For too long, the refineries have had their way in Contra Costa. How long was their leash? Up until 1997, a Richmond ordinance allowed Chevron to inspect its own buildings and report violations to the city. Really. The company had five inspectors who were officially working for the city, but were paid for and supervised by Chevron.

In 1996, one of the Chevron/Richmond inspectors actually had the gall to write up the company for $15 million worth of code violations the most in the 10-year history of Chevron's self-inspections. What happened to him? Two months after his 1996 inspection report, Chevron laid him off during a "restructuring" that claimed 180 jobs. The company says the two actions were not related.

You see, it's hard for Richmond not to say "how high?" when Chevron says "jump." It is the faithful, stay-at-home spouse, and for good reason: Chevron's taxes account for about 17 percent of Richmond's general fund. And while Richmond Councilman Tom Butt is one of the few public officials who are openly critical of Chevron, he doesn't want to see the refinery close, either. He thinks the marriage can be saved. It just needs to be, as our friends the marriage counselors would say, a little more equal. Is Richmond being fairly compensated for the environmental hassle of having a refinery in town? Butt doesn't think so.

Maybe you do. If you think you weren't affected by Thursday's explosion, take a little test. Were you late because your BART train or AC Transit bus was delayed? How much did your business lose because it had to close or send employees home early? Did you worry if your kids would be safe at their downwind school?

If you answered "yes," do you want this marriage to continue?

More questions
Those are the obvious questions. But accidents like Thursday's spur others. More rumors than questions, really. The kind of rumors that do as much damage to the reputation of a refinery town as does the image of a 100-foot black plume floating through west Contra Costa.

Thursday's accident breathed life into this rumor involving Pixar, the high-tech company that is the prize of Point Richmond for creating smash movies like "A Bug's Life" and "Toy Story." We should say "was" the pride of the Point; Pixar recently broke ground on its new headquarters in Emeryville. Butt says 15 well-placed Pixar employees have told him that the company moved because Pixar CEO Steve Jobs was afraid of a "Chevron catastrophe" that would endanger his nearby employees.

A spokesman for Pixar's public relations agency spokesman relayed this response Friday to Butt's story: "Pixar has no comment." Interesting note: The voice-mail message at Pixar headquarters boasts that the company is "located in the heart of Point Richmond. Just turn left at the refinery."

The other partner

Suburbia isn't the only partner having trouble with this marriage. Industry has been feeling suffocated lately. In a recent letter to Contra Costa Supervisor Mark DeSaulnier, Tosco CEO Thomas O'Malley said: "I, candidly, have grave concerns about trying to operate (the Avon plant) in Contra Costa County. The overall negative business environment and lack of consistent cooperation between all parties involved raises serious questions about any restart."

DeSaulnier wonders about that, too. He wonders about what low-impact "clean" businesses could provide the same tax revenue in Contra Costa's refinery belt. Quietly, he met recently with U.S. Department of Labor officials and local union leaders to discuss Plan B: How can we retrain workers if the plant closes? Yes, Plan B is the divorce plan, but DeSaulnier still thinks the marriage can be saved. But there must be changes.

Refineries must change how they view the relationship. They gotta realize that their longtime spouse has been liberated; they can't continue to behave like they're operating in 1940 Contra Costa. The land under them is many times more valuable than when they built their plants and their neighbors don't all work there. The company towns are gone; many of their neighbors are commuting to white collar jobs. The kind where you don't have to "shelter in place" when things go wrong.

Right now, everybody is mad about the marriage, but that anger won't last. Politicians who are talking tough now will wilt if gasoline hits $2 a gallon, due in part to "the Chevron accident." Will you promise to make them remember?

Will you promise to hang tough if Industry threatens to leave because of an "overall negative business environment" here? Will you promise to remind Industry that it needs Suburbia as much as Suburbia needs Industry? That Industry needs our water access and roads and trained labor and quality of life?

Yes, we're dependent on our erratic spouse until we can find another, one that can take care of our most pressing need. But unfortunately, the electric car has proven to be too flaky a mate. For now.

Reach Joe Garofoli at 925-943-8061; e-mail joeg@cctimes.com.