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Media Coverage
Richmond Weighs Its Refinery Role
April 4, 1999



Sunday, April 4, 1999
Section: West County
Page: A19
Shawn Masten

RICHMOND The City Council last week took the first step toward stricter safety regulation at Chevron's Richmond refinery, but whether members have the political will to stay the course remains in doubt.

Although community pressure to regulate the refinery is as hot as the March 25 explosion and fire at the refinery, it's an election year, and Chevron is a political powerhouse in Richmond, local politicians and community activists say. Even if the council approves tougher regulations in the next six months, critics worry Chevron could derail them at election time, when five of nine council seats will be up for grabs.

"They could buy themselves a new City Council and after the election simply have (the law) overturned," said Denny Larson, Northern California director of Citizens for a Better Environment.

Tuesday, the council decided to explore adopting Contra Costa County's industrial safety ordinance and giving the county the authority to monitor Chevron's Richmond refinery as well as the city's other industrial plants.

Chevron's Richmond facility is the only one of four in the county not regulated by the county ordinance. The other three are in unincorporated areas. The refinery is within the jurisdictions of the city.

To many familiar with the tight-knit relationship between the city and Chevron, the unanimous decision came as a surprise. And most council members say they remain committed to going through the process with the county. But when a vote on the actual ordinance does come up, it's not clear what council members will do.

Chevron and officials representing the city's industrial employers say they aren't happy with Tuesday's decision.

"I would have preferred the investigation would have been completed before they took initial action," said Dennis Spaniol, executive director of the Council of Industries, a group representing 34 manufacturing and utility companies, including Chevron and General Chemical.

"Local industry certainly is committed to safety, but we still don't have a handle on what happened or if the ordinance is appropriate to the root cause of the accident."

Chevron lobbied the council heavily before the vote, calling council members to try to sway them against moving on the county plan. Before the council meeting Tuesday, the company offered a counterproposal that included some parts of the county ordinance but possibly avoided a state environmental review.

The proposal never came up for a vote, but Chevron may bring it to the council Tuesday, said Chevron spokesman Terry Swartz.

"We're going to embark upon a process to come up with some sort of regulatory relief for the concern that the citizens have regarding industrial relations," Swartz said. "We would like to be a constructive part of the process."

Chevron is likely to have a substantial role in the process. The company is Richmond's largest employer with a payroll of 1,425, and its taxes account for 17 percent of the general fund budget, which pays for services such as police, fire and parks and recreation.

Far reach of influence
The company's influence goes far beyond taxes and employees. The city and refinery grew up together both were created within a few years of each other after the turn of the century, and they are linked in the minds of many residents. For the better part of 60 years, Richmond was a company town, with company officials helping make most of the city's key decisions.

And most acknowledge that Chevron is still the top player in town.

"Chevron's still the big gorilla," said Bob Campbell, former assemblyman and Richmond councilman. "I would say Chevron is one of the most powerful influences."

The company says it has given more than $6 million to social service agencies and neighborhood groups in West Contra Costa since 1994, and a $1 million efficiency study designed to improve the way city government does business is being funded by Chevron.

"We've always had a pretty good relationship," Councilman Richard Griffin said. "Chevron has been a good neighbor not a perfect neighbor. ... They provide jobs. They provide a heck of a tax base. They provide social programs. We depend on Chevron."

Little improvement
But community activists contend the company's donations are designed to assuage fears about safety and do little to actually improve the quality of life in the community.

"I don't think that the refinery actually has a good relationship with the community," said Henry Clark, director of the West County Toxics Coalition, a grass-roots environmental group based in Richmond.

"Though Chevron is one of the largest refineries in the world, and residents in the area of North Richmond are impacted by chemical emissions because our community's on the front line, the company hasn't really invested in the community," Clark said.

Though he acknowledges Chevron gives to community groups, Clark questions the company's motivation for doing so. He contends the donations prevent organizations from speaking out about problems.

"The company has contributed over the years small amounts to local community-based organizations. As a result, those groups have not been able to address these issue with Chevron, especially as it relates to chemical exposure."

Political donations
The company also comes under fire for its frequent donations to Richmond politicians. Since 1995, the company has provided more than $13,000 to City Council campaigns. The company made significant contributions to two of the three council members who won seats in 1997.

Griffin received $2,500, the maximum allowed under Richmond campaign rules, and Councilwoman Irma Anderson received $2,000. Councilman Nat Bates and Councilwoman Lesa McIntosh, who resigned in March after being appointed to the East Bay Municipal Utility District, also received large donations from Chevron.

Councilman Alex Evans, who received a $1,000 contribution from Chevron for his 1995 election bid, said the ordinance bears looking into. Evans is up for re-election in November, along with Bates and Councilman Tom Butt.

"There is a lack of confidence in Chevron's ability to self regulate," he said. "Our responsibility is to ensure that Chevron operates in the safest manner possible."

Giving Chevron a voice

Chevron's Swartz said its charitable donations are designed to improve the community, and the political contributions give the company a voice in the political process.

"The question of power and influence is more of a perception than a reality," Swartz said. "All we expect is to be a participant in the democratic process like everybody else. We're in the city; we have a significant economic commitment to the city; we would like to be a part of what happens in the city."

Criticizing Chevron has also proven a key political plum for some. Butt has made a name for himself battling Chevron, and since the most recent fire has been the key council voice advocating a new safety ordinance. He sponsored the resolution the council approved last week.

"I'm not anti-Chevron, nor have I ever advocated that Chevron close down or move away," Butt said. "What I have always advocated for is a realistic and rational understanding of the complete role that Chevron plays in the Richmond economy and its impact on Richmond's quality of life and image."

Special treatment
In Butt's mind, Chevron long has received special treatment from the city - at a hefty price. He was critical of a city policy that allows Chevron instead of the city to inspect its own construction projects. Along with Councilwoman Donna Powers, he led the charge in 1997 for legislation that took control of that program out of the company's hands and gave it to the city.

Butt also has been critical of the way the city allows Chevron to pay a lump sum utility user tax instead of the percentage assessed to all other users in the city.

"The city has lost tens of millions of dollars in potential tax revenue under the arrangement," he said.

But most efforts to change the rules with Chevron have been unsuccessful. Powers attempted to get the council to adopt the county's Good Neighbor Ordinance two years ago. The ordinance also required more stringent oversight of the refinery. But after heavy lobbying from Chevron, the council derailed the effort.

"They don't want the city and council running around doing inspections. They're just not used to that," Powers said.

Powers, who is not seeking re-election in the fall, said she is skeptical of Tuesday's decision to vote for studying the county ordinance. She attributes the vote to "face saving, and as the council gets closer to adopting the ordinance, it'll get dicier. There'll be more pressure from industry, not just Chevron but other industry in Richmond."

Pressure expected
Butt said he was surprised the resolution passed, and said a key ingredient in passing it was John Dalrymple of the Central Labor Council of Contra Costa County, who came out solidly in favor of Butt's measure.

"I don't think there's any question that Chevron and the industrial establishment in Richmond is going to continue to put tremendous pressure on council members," he said. "They always have, and I see no reason for them to stop now."

Councilman John Marquez said he came to the meeting prepared to vote against the resolution but changed his mind at the last minute.

"I still believe the city of Richmond should have the final say-so in terms of that ordinance," Marquez said.

The unanimous vote also came as a surprise to Larson, who is critical of the council's relationship with Chevron.

"They broke ranks with (Chevron), but the bottom line is we'll see if the City Council is willing to stand up to Chevron when they have a proposal on the table," Larson said. "It's really tough to go up against Chevron in this town."

But what form the final product will take is still up in the air, and though they've agreed to study the issue, council members are far from a decision on the actual ordinance.

"I'm in favor of looking at it," said Councilwoman Anderson. "Hopefully we'll come out with something that is generic enough to suit all agencies but specific enough to suit Richmond."

Staff writer Chuck Squatriglia contributed to this story.