RICHMOND -- Lawyers for a state environmental group sued the regional air quality district in San Francisco Superior Court on Thursday, challenging its permitting of Chevron's planned $1 billion oil refinery modernization project here.

Communities for a Better Environment sued the Bay Area Air Quality Management District after the agency declined the group's call to revoke the permit, which has been renewed twice since 2008, until Richmond completes its environmental review of the proposed upgrade.

"The air district must wait for the city of Richmond to finish and certify its final (environmental impact report), and it's not doing that," said Roger Lin, a CBE attorney. "They approved it originally in 2008 and have been renewing it consistently, but the irony is it's called a modernization project, so it should use the most modern analysis, not the one that was found illegal in 2008."

Aerial view of the Chevron Richmond refinery on Oct. 14, 2010, in Richmond.
Aerial view of the Chevron Richmond refinery on Oct. 14, 2010, in Richmond. (Susan Tripp Pollard/Staff file)

A judge rejected Chevron's initial plan in 2008 after CBE and other environmental groups sued, arguing that the EIR was insufficient in explaining the project's consequences on the community.

Chevron this year came back with a new EIR and a scaled-back modernization plan that is now under city Planning Commission review.

Lin declined to say that the lawsuit portends another challenge if the city approves the project.

"What I can say is this does put more pressure on the city to really get it right," he said.

Air quality district spokeswoman Lisa Fasano said the district would not comment on pending litigation.

Chevron Richmond spokeswoman Melissa Ritchie released a statement Thursday saying the company cannot comment on the lawsuit.

"However, the modernization project is a good project that will result in a newer, safer, cleaner refinery by replacing some of the oldest processing equipment with modern technology that is inherently safer and meets the nation's toughest air quality standards," Ritchie wrote. "Modernization will increase energy efficiency, add new inspections, protect the environment and create 1,000 local construction jobs."

CBE spokesman Nile Malloy said the group, which has been critical of Chevron Richmond for years, filed the suit because its staff "discovered that the (air district) granted Chevron authority to construct a project without an EIR, public review or even an analysis of whether it would meet (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) standards."

The 16-page complaint says Chevron has not applied for a new permit, but " ... in 2010 and again in 2012, the air district extended the 2008 (permit) based on Chevron's old project analysis, which was vacated."

Whether the lawsuit will affect the latest iteration of the modernization project is unknown. The Richmond City Council made clear that it wanted to review the EIR and decide whether to greenlight the project before the year is over.

The council on Tuesday urged the Planning Commission to move through its approval process as quickly as possible and amended city law to allow the council to bypass the Planning Commission if the approval process drags on.

The council approved the larger modernization project in 2008 before it was squelched in court.

Richmond Councilman Tom Butt said the city has done all it can to help ensure the new project doesn't meet a similar fate.

"From the beginning, the city has made clear we do not want a repeat of 2008," Butt said. "We want a bulletproof EIR and process that is not vulnerable to a lawsuit."

Chevron released a 1,100-plus-page draft EIR earlier this year that promised no net increases in air emissions and proposed safety upgrades to some piping systems, as well as replacing three Chevron Suezmax ships with two cleaner-running vessels that can each carry about 1 million barrels of crude oil.

In addition, it would create an investment fund of $3 million annually 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.

Contact Robert Rogers at 510-262-2726. Follow him at Twitter.com/sfbaynewsrogers.