Apr 18, 2014
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Richmond planning commissioners and some city residents say a thorough review is needed of the 1,100-page environmental impact report (EIR) for the Chevron Richmond modernization project.

About 60 people spoke during a public hearing on the document Thursday, including members of environmental groups, Chevron Richmond officials and employees, laborers and local residents.

Jennifer Hernandez, the Holland & Knight attorney hired by the city of Richmond to vet the proposed project, told the commissioners the EIR could set a new standard for transparency in environmental reports. But several members of the public said the size and scope of the report as well as the technical details it contains have made it difficult to wade through.

Some commissioners seemed to agree. “I’m still in the process of thoroughly looking through this,” Commissioner Andrew Butt said of the EIR.

Commissioner Melvin Willis added, “We need a modernization project, but we just need to make sure this is the right way to modernize.”

In 2009, the courts rejected the city’s EIR for a separate, more ambitious refinery project on the grounds that the report failed to disclose whether the plan would allow for the processing of heavier crude oil, which has the potential to increase emissions.

Because of that, Chevron Richmond put together a far more detailed environmental review for the latest project. While the modernization effort is a “downsized version of the 2008 project,” Hernandez said, the “EIR has been substantially upsized.”

The modernization project would replace a hydrogen plant operating on 1960s-era technology with a more energy-efficient version, and enhance the refinery’s sulfur recovery units. It would not change the grade of crude oil processed at the refinery but would allow crude with higher sulfur content to be used.

The project is expected to create 1,000 local union construction jobs, an additional 1,300 jobs in surrounding communities and $200 million in economic activity in Richmond and West Contra Costa County.

The company says the EIR details how the modernization project will make the refinery newer, safer, and cleaner. It also discusses how modernization would help ensure that an incident similar to the August 2012 fire at the refinery, caused by a piping failure, never happens again.

“The project includes a variety of design features and a mitigation measures to respond to these new changes,” Hernandez said, “including specific emissions reduction measures for greenhouse gas as well as other emissions, and other measures to improve reliability, such as additional replacement of piping circuits in the crude unit.”

Some environmental groups, however, distrust Chevron Richmond’s pledge of no net increase in emissions following modernization, or believe there should be a larger reduction. One commenter on Thursday said the $30 million Chevron Richmond has pledged to spend on emissions reduction projects in Richmond and North Richmond over the next 10 years is not enough.

“We need to figure out together how to make this plant that we still need the safest, least polluting and at the same time build a sustainable energy future that we need,” said Greg Karras of the Communities for a Better Environment.

Oscar Garcia, a lifelong Richmond resident and Chevron Richmond employee, said environmental issues are a top priority at the refinery.

“[Modernization] is really beneficial to the city of Richmond, not just to Chevron,” Garcia said “When my family and neighbors ask me about this project, I tell them, ‘Do you prefer to live next to a 1960s car or a 2014 car?’ And usually the answer is I’d rather live next to the newer car.”

Another worker, Per Lorentzen, who said he’s been employed at refineries around the world, called the Chevron Richmond refinery “the cleanest, most reliable refinery I’ve ever worked at.”

“I’m a single parent,” he said. “If I thought for one minute I was at risk or my safety was at risk going to work every day, I would not be working here.”

The public comment period for the EIR ends May 2, and the planning commission is scheduled to rule on the report in June.


About the Author

Mike Aldax is the editor of the Richmond Standard. He has 13 years of journalism experience, most recently as a reporter for the San Francisco Examiner. He previously held roles as reporter and editor at Bay City News, Napa Valley Register, Garden Island Newspaper in Kaua’i, and the Queens Courier in New York City.