As we foretold, a severe threat to the public safety of Contra Costa County and the East Bay has reared its ugly head in the Legislature. It should be quickly squashed.

Using the insidious last-minute legislative tactic called "gut and amend," Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, is advancing SB54, which would make significant changes to Contra Costa County's landmark Industrial Safety Ordinance. They are changes designed to reignite a political battle to advance the interests of local trade unions but do little to enhance safety.

Ironically, it does that by pitting union against union. The United Steelworkers, who represent about 95 percent of oil refinery workers in the state, adamantly opposes SB54, which will essentially take jobs from the steelworkers and give them to members of the local trade unions.

State Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, left, has a bill before lawmakers in Sacramento that would make significant changes to Contra Costa County’s
State Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, left, has a bill before lawmakers in Sacramento that would make significant changes to Contra Costa County's Industrial Safety Ordinance. (D. Ross Cameron/Staff)

In the 1990s Contra Costa County had a scary problem that threatened the entire area. Industrial facilities located here kept blowing up and killing people. Many area plants were ticking time bombs as profit-motivated operators cut safety corners.

In an effort to "do something" county officials began considering legal options to push public safety to the forefront of industrial plant operations.

It was in this crucible that the Industrial Safety Ordinance was born. It was by no means an easy delivery.

Some local trade unions tried to rig the system so that essentially only their members could work in the industrial plants. Environmental groups tried to leverage the situation with threats of lawsuit.


But, to their credit, Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, and County Clerk-Recorder Joe Canciamilla, who were both county supervisors then, kept their eye on the ball and used collaboration to pass the historic ordinance that allowed local government to protect its residents in a meaningful way. The issue was public safety, pure and simple. It was not a jobs ordinance. It was not an environmental ordinance. It was a safety ordinance. It still is.

Both DeSaulnier and Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla, D-Concord, should vote against SB54. Both know better. They served as Contra Costa supervisors and know full well that it is one of the most significant pieces of public safety legislation in the last 50 years. DeSaulnier was one of its midwives and Bonilla one of its elected guardians.

There are those who cynically use last year's fire at Richmond's Chevron Refinery to damage an ordinance that for 10 years has been a model for industrial operations. While no ordinance is perfect and some safety changes to it are necessary, those should be about public safety, not political fights. Public safety is too important for that.