Hundreds attend Planning Commission hearing on Chevron Richmond Refinery Modernization Project

Hundreds of people packed the Kennedy High School cafeteria Wednesday night in support of the Chevron Richmond Refinery Modernization Project.

Hundreds of people packed the Kennedy High School cafeteria Wednesday night in support of the Chevron Richmond Refinery Modernization Project, which is facing a crucial vote by the city Planning Commission.

While most of the overflow crowd supported modernization – with many wearing shirts imprinted with the phrase “Richmond Proud” —  opponents of the project also attended the hearing to voice their concerns.

The commission hearing, which is set to conclude tonight, was held at the high school in anticipation of large crowds, and more than 125 people signed up to speak publicly about the $1 billion project. Commissioners must vote on whether to certify the city’s environmental impact report (EIR) and approve permits for the project.

“A new house is much better than an old house, and safer,” Richmond resident Naomi Williams told commissioners, adding that they should set politics aside and “please use common sense” in favor of the project.

But some of the people who signed up to speak in opposition to the project actually voiced support for modernization, calling on Chevron to do even more to protect West County residents.

“This is not about being for [modernization] or against it,” said Jeff Kilbreth, a member of the Richmond Progressive Alliance. “It’s about getting on the right course with Chevron.”

Henry Clark, an environmental activist with the West County Toxics Coalition, supported modernization, calling it the “best project that I’ve ever seen.”

“This time Chevron has taken a different approach,” Clark said, adding the company has been receptive to the needs of North Richmond and Parchester residents, who live adjacent to the refinery.

An important public hearing is set to take place Wednesday regarding the Chevron Richmond Refinery Modernization Project.
The graphic shows two main components of the Chevron Richmond Refinery Modernization Project.

In 2009, a judge halted a larger version of the project on the grounds that the EIR report was incomplete. The latest EIR received praise from all sides of the issue, with experts saying the 1,100-page report sets a new precedent for transparency.

“The EIR is a terrific piece of work,” Kilbreth said. “We know so much more about the refinery.”

Jennifer Hernandez, the Holland & Knight attorney hired by the city to vet the project, called the EIR the best she’s worked on in her 30 years of experience in the field.

“I’m proud to be associated with it,” Hernandez said.

At Wednesday’s hearing, Hernandez tried to break down the complex language in the report and show how the project will reduce emissions. For example, the most toxic chemical comes from diesel engine combustion, which doesn’t derive in part from the refinery but from the ships that transport the refinery’s products, Hernandez said. As part of modernization, Chevron will replace the engines of several ships with newer versions.

While Hernandez lauded the EIR, she said an alternative plan submitted by Attorney General Kamala Harris would do even more to improve emissions. Some environmental activists, including Clark, urged the commission to go forward with Harris’s plan.

“The alternative proposal by the attorney general’s office is a net improvement in both air quality and health risks,” Hernandez said.

Kilbreth said he wants Chevron Richmond to also set future emissions goals that will allow it to one day be the “best refinery in America.”

The modernization project would replace an existing hydrogen plant with a modern version that is 20 percent more energy efficient, as well as enhance the refinery’s sulfur recovery units. The project would lead to a reduction in overall emissions, and if approved Chevron has pledged to invest $30 million over 10 years to lower greenhouse gas emissions in the community and create local green jobs.

A large number of supporters at Wednesday’s hearing touted the economic impacts of modernization. The project will create 1,000 construction jobs and 1,300 indirect jobs, along with $220 million in local spending during construction.  An agreement was signed with the city of Richmond and trades unions to ensure local hiring.