RICHMOND -- A full-tuition college scholarship for anyone who graduates from a public school in Richmond, paid for by Chevron Corp.?
That's what at least two city councilmen want, and they've publicly proposed that it should be part of a settlement package stemming from this past summer's fire at Chevron's Richmond refinery that sent more than 15,000 residents to area hospitals.
"We're pushing hard for this," said Councilman Tom Butt, who has joined with Councilman Jael Myrick in touting the proposal. "We want to build public support." Myrick campaigned for election last year on a platform calling for city money to be put into a scholarship fund for local high school graduates. But with finances strained -- the city is wrestling to close a looming budget deficit this year -- his proposal looked like a nonstarter.
Last week, a divided City Council voted to automatically retain a San Francisco-based law firm in 30 days if Chevron didn't agree to a compensation package to the city's liking.
On Tuesday, Butt floated the idea in an email to supporters.
"I want to run an idea by you and solicit your support," Butt wrote. "I am proposing that some portion of the settlement funds go to a program that might be called 'The Richmond Promise.'"
Butt went on to estimate that paying for the full tuition of every Richmond graduate who wanted to go to college or vocational training would cost Chevron $1 million initially and about $5 million annually after four years.
In response to Butt and Myrick's proposal, Chevron spokeswoman Melissa Ritchie said via email Tuesday, "Chevron U.S.A. Inc. looks forward to continuing its ongoing discussions with the city of Richmond regarding how (we) can be effective community partners now and in the future."
Not everyone is fully onboard with the idea. Councilman Corky Boozé said that Butt has made a mistake by taking an "adversarial" approach with the energy giant.
"It's hard to reach an agreement when Butt and his allies are constantly beating up on Chevron," he said. "You can't punch a guy in the face and then ask him for some spare change."
Butt said his idea is modeled after a scholarship fund run by Murphy Oil Co. in El Dorado, Ark. The company provides a full-tuition scholarship to any Arkansas university for a graduating senior in El Dorado, or an equivalent amount to go to an out-of-state school, he said.
The Aug. 6 fire occurred when a corroded pipe ruptured in a refinery crude unit.
The state Division of Occupational Safety and Health found that the refinery was guilty of 11 "willful" violations and fined the corporation about $1 million, the highest fine in the agency's history. The U.S. Chemical Safety Board's investigation found that the pipe was recommended for replacement by Chevron inspectors as early as 2002.
A massive settlement is not unprecedented in Richmond. A 1993 incident at a General Chemical Corp. plant sent a toxic cloud drifting across the city and 24,000 people to area hospitals. The company in 1995 agreed to a $180 million settlement, with more than half shared among 55,000 residents.
Butt said he hopes his idea pre-empts a protracted legal battle with the refinery, which is by far the city's largest taxpayer. Chevron already spends more than $4 million annually on philanthropic investments in the city.
"This would be a great program to convince Chevron to fund as a part of the fire settlement," Butt wrote to his readers. "It could have a dramatic impact on education and kids' futures in Richmond, and its publicity value for Chevron would be beyond value."
Contact Robert Rogers at 510-262-2726. ¿Follow him at Twitter.com/roberthrogers.