RICHMOND -- City officials made it clear Tuesday night: While the investigation into last summer's fire at the Chevron refinery here is near an end, the legal and policy implications will reach far into the future.
Though it postponed making a formal decision Tuesday, the City Council is poised to contract with a high-profile San Francisco law firm to secure damages from Chevron stemming from the massive Aug. 6 fire, which sent more than 15,000 residents to area hospitals.
On Tuesday, the council also passed two agenda items related to the petroleum giant. One directed staff to strengthen the city's Industrial Safety Ordinance to align with U.S. Chemical Safety Board recommendations calling on the city to join a multiagency regulatory body. The other aimed at divesting public employee pensions of funds from companies that profit from fossil fuel production.
The trio of moves sends a clear signal that the city is taking an aggressive stance toward its biggest taxpayer.
"Chevron isn't happy," said Councilman Tom Butt, adding that months of closed-door meetings among city officials preceded Tuesday's announcement that the city would seek legal counsel. "But we have an obligation to get fair compensation; if that ultimately involves litigation, then it does."
City Manager Bill Lindsay released a document Tuesday announcing the city's intent to hire San Francisco-based law firm Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy, which represented victims of the 2010 San Bruno disaster caused by a Pacific Gas & Electric gas line rupture. The firm remains in litigation stemming from the San Bruno fire and has handled more than 200 cases for clients seeking damages.
The agenda item asked the council to approve legal services agreements with the firm for an unspecified fee, but the council adjourned at about 1:30 a.m. Wednesday without voting on the item, which was held over until the May 21 meeting.
Frank Pitre, a partner in the firm, declined to comment by telephone Wednesday.
But passage appears imminent. Councilman Corky Boozé, who, along with Councilman Nat Bates, tends to be most conciliatory toward the refinery, said his foremost concern is to "make the city whole" by getting compensation from Chevron, but he is not convinced the city needs legal help to get adequate compensation.
"Chevron created a problem, and they have to pay," Boozé said. "When we lawyer up, everybody's defenses go up. They have big-time lawyers, too. I will vote for (contracting with the firm), but I hope the city can sit down and come to an agreement before it comes to that."
The refinery has dramatically increased its local philanthropic spending in recent years, especially on education programs in local schools, to more than $4 million annually. In the days after the fire, the company accepted thousands of claims filed by residents seeking damages but hasn't divulged how much it paid out.
The city voted 5-2 Tuesday to direct staff to shift pension fund investments from fossil fuel firms to more renewable energy companies over the next five years.
But the city has no direct influence over California Public Employees Retirement System, or CalPERS, investments, staff said. It also has no money in Public Agency Retirement Services, or PARS, having not made any investments into the program covering retiree medical benefits in years as it opted to pay benefits for current retirees with annual revenues rather than putting away money for future retirees.
But if and when the city does put money into PARS -- it declined to make the recommended $4 million down payment last year on future benefits owed to employees -- it will steer investments away from companies that profit from fossil fuel production, according to the staff report.
Boozé called the plan "stupid," and Bates said it would have "no impact" on fossil fuel consumption or renewable energy technologies.
But other council members noted that more than 10 other cities have taken similar steps in recent years, including Berkeley, San Francisco and Seattle.
The item approving CSB's recommendations included a provision directing staff to send letters to local, county and state governments announcing Richmond's readiness to participate in a multiagency regulatory regime to oversee refineries.
Chevron spokeswoman Melissa Ritchie wrote in an email Thursday that Chevron has already begun the process of improving damage review and pipe screening programs.
"We look forward to continuing our collaboration with oversight agencies to create more effective and efficient regulation across the entire industry," Ritchie wrote. Ritche declined to comment on potential litigation.