RICHMOND -- Chevron Corp.'s proposed $1 billion modernization of its local refinery does too little to reduce pollutants and ensure safety, dozens of speakers told the city's Planning Commission on Thursday.
"The proposed way that Chevron wants to run its plant is unacceptable," said Mike Parker, a resident and mayoral candidate. "Chevron has to lead the way with making that refinery safer and cleaner for all residents."
Thursday's meeting, in which more than 60 people addressed the commission, was the latest in a series of sessions to provide public review and comment after the March 18 release of an 1,100-page environmental impact report prepared by city staff and outside consultants. The report details the project's sweeping scope, including replacing its 1960s-era hydrogen plant with new equipment that will process higher-quality hydrogen more efficiently and provide more flexibility to process crude oil blends and gas oils containing more sulfur.
The city has set a 45-day comment period ending May 2, and the Planning Commission is scheduled to rule on the report in June. If the commission decision is appealed, the matter will go to the City Council.
The proposal is the latest chapter in the nearly 10-year effort to modernize the century-old refinery, the largest in Northern California and second-largest in the state.
The City Council approved a more expansive version of the refinery project in 2008, and Chevron began work.
But environmental groups sued, and the following year, a judge threw out that project's environmental report, saying it did not address key questions about whether the improvements would let Chevron process heavier grades of crude oil and increase emissions.
With this new version, Chevron scaled back the project, dropping elements that would have allowed the refinery to expand gasoline production, focusing instead on allowing the refinery to handle crude with higher sulfur content, which oil industry experts say is key to maintaining competitiveness in an era in which higher-quality crude becomes more scarce.
Chevron officials call the new draft report more "robust" and say it is one of the premier documents of its kind in the industry's history. They stress that independent reviews have concluded that there will be no net increase in emissions.
"This project will create a newer, safer, cleaner refinery," said Jeff Hartwig, a chemical engineer with Chevron who addressed the commission. "It means less pollution. The time for modernization is now."
Still, Chevron officials concede a legal challenge is likely.
On Thursday, droves of residents packed the council chamber and lined up to speak. Many spoke of family and neighbors who died prematurely from cancer and other ailments they alleged were caused by Chevron's operations. Distrust of Chevron's claims that the new project will result in no net increase in emissions ran rampant.
An August 2012 fire at the refinery also loomed over the proceedings. That fire, caused by a corroded pipe, sent thousands to area hospitals and devalued the refinery, causing tax receipts to plunge and blowing a hole in the city's budget.
"I've heard that Chevron is already writing its appeal" to a coming decision, said Greg Karras, a scientist with Communities for a Better Environment, one of the groups that sued to halt the last project. "Their proposal for higher-sulfur oil without upgrading pipe in several areas is a waiting disaster. We've seen that movie before, and it's (the Planning Commission's) job to review this before it goes to City Council."
Other speakers condemned Chevron's operations in general, saying that fossil fuel production is inherently dangerous. Some called on the refinery to convert to renewable energy production like solar power. Several speakers also criticized the company for its massive marketing campaign, which has featured extensive billboard ads, websites and other image-burnishing efforts in recent months.
While the majority of speakers were either opposed or skeptical of the project, some business and labor leaders joined Chevron officials in praising the project and assuring the public that it would be in the city's health and financial interests.
Commission members, who are appointed by Mayor Gayle McLaughlin, a consistent Chevron critic, signaled they would subject the proposal to prolonged scrutiny and may extend the process to review the documents and residents' feedback before making a decision.
"I think we might need a little more time," said Commissioner Marilyn Langlois.
Langlois added that she wanted to see more documentation detailing exactly how Chevron reaches its conclusions that greenhouse gases will not increase, saying that it appears Chevron aims to offset increases in emissions in some operations with decreases in others. She said she wants reductions in all emissions and remains wary of potential "loopholes" in Chevron's proposal.
The project also calls for safety upgrades to some piping systems and replacing three Chevron Suezmax ships with two cleaner-running vessels that can carry about 1 million barrels of crude each.
In addition, it would create an investment fund of $3 million per year for 10 years to pay for ventures in Richmond and North Richmond to lower greenhouse gas emissions and create local green jobs. The modernization would not increase maximum production at the 257,000-barrel-per-day refinery.
Anyone who would like to comment officially on the environmental impact report can do so until May 2 with a letter to city planner Lina Velasco at Lina_Velasco@ci.richmond.ca.us. The report can be viewed at ContraCostaTimes.com/extra or http://chevronmodernization.com/project-documents