KTVU - March 5, 2008.
RICHMOND -- A spokeswoman for Chevron's Richmond refinery Wednesday defended a proposed project to upgrade some of the plant's equipment, saying the project would not enable the refinery to process heavier crude oil than it currently processes.
"It's not an expansion project, it's an upgrade," refinery spokeswoman Camille Priselac said. "The refinery is going to continue using the same types of crude and the same amount of crude."
The refinery currently processes light and medium crude oil. The proposed upgrades, referred to as the Energy and Hydrogen Renewal Project, would not enable it to process heavy crude oil, Priselac said.
Greg Karras, a senior scientist with Communities for a Better Environment, an environmental justice organization, however, alleged during a press conference in Richmond this morning that the proposed project would enable the refinery to process dirtier, cheaper crude oil that could result in five to 50 times more pollution, including increased mercury, sulfur and greenhouse gas emissions.
Karras went on to allege that refinery officials lied to the city when it certified that the final environmental impact report was correct in stating that it would not enable the plant to process dirtier crude oil.
The environmental impact report states that the only pollution increase would be a 1 percent increase in sulfur emissions.
Priselac said the refinery has proposed to replace its 1930s power plant with a new power plant that would allow the refinery to become independent from the Pacific Gas and Electric Co. power grid. It has also proposed to replace its 1960s gasoline reformer with a new gasoline reformer.
The proposed project would reduce overall emissions and make the refinery more efficient and energy independent, Priselac said.
According to Karras, however, the proposed upgrades would give the refinery the capacity to refine dirtier crude oil, and, according to his experience with the oil industry, refineries have always used the capacity they have built for.
"Why would they go to cheaper, dirtier oil? (Because) price discounts can exceed $5 per barrel, which, for a refinery Chevron's size, could be about $400 million per year," Karras said.
He added that those price discounts would not necessarily translate into cheaper prices at the pump.
Communities for a Better Environment uncovered the refinery's alleged plan to switch to dirtier oil after looking at the final environmental impact report and finding that "it didn't make sense," Karras said.
They then looked at documents submitted to the Bay Area Air Quality Management District and the Regional Water Quality Control Board and found that the project was similar to one proposed in 2001 in which the refinery applied for a permit to upgrade its refining capacity to be able to refine dirtier oil, Karras alleged.
The air district did not approve the project, Karras said.
Karras also said refinery officials have not agreed to limit the quality of crude oil they would be permitted to bring into the refinery.
"This project is about refining cheap and dirty crude at a cheap and dirty refinery," said Jessica Tovar, a community organizer for Communities for a Better Environment and a resident of Atchison Village, a neighborhood seated along the fence line of the refinery.
Sylvia Hopkins, another Atchison Village resident, said children in her neighborhood had extremely high rates of asthma hospitalizations and that she personally needed to use a machine to help her breathe every night.
Hopkins also said that residents in her neighborhood had unusually high rates of cancer.
According to Hopkins, elevated levels of sulfur, heavy metals and particulate matter were found inside and outside her house.
If the refinery were to begin processing dirtier crude oil, it would need to process that oil at higher temperatures, which could lead to more flaring, fires and explosions, Tovar said.
In some areas of west Contra Costa County, residents have double the asthma rate than the county's average rate, according to a 2005 report issued by Contra Costa Health Services Department.
Carla Perez, executive director of Communities for a Better Environment, said that while there are no published scientific studies that have been able to measure the damage done to people's health after breathing in chemicals from refinery flaring, anecdotal evidence has suggested that the pollutants may cause lung disease, cancer and other health problems.
"We know flares emit certain chemicals," Perez said. "We know what health effects those chemicals tend to cause. And we know what symptoms people are experiencing."
People living near the Chevron refinery frequently experience severe asthma attacks, dizziness, migraine headaches and rashes, Perez said.
One study showed that people living downwind from the Chevron refinery have the highest rates of hospitalization due to asthma attacks in California, Perez said.
Women living in west Contra Costa County also have some of the highest rates of breast cancer in the state and some of the worst breast cancer mortality rates, Perez said.
Henry Clark, executive director of the West County Toxics Coalition, said his organization has been "waging a struggle against Chevron for the past 20 years."
"Communities like mine, like North Richmond, have already taken more than their fair share of pollution," Clark said. "We've already suffered more than our fair share from asthma and death. For them to come back and say it's OK because it only adds a little more injustice ... this here is environmental racism."
Clark blasted the refinery for committing environmental crimes against the primarily low-income minority communities near the refinery.
"There's been a thorough review of the project" by the city of Richmond, its consultants and other government agencies, including the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, Priselac said, noting that although the permitting process was only supposed to take one year, it has dragged on for three.
The refinery must receive permits from the city of Richmond and the Bay Area Air Quality Management District before it can begin construction.