SFGate - Carolyn Jones, July 18, 2008.
A sharply divided Richmond City Council approved on Thursday Chevron's controversial plan for a major upgrade of its century-old refinery and accepted $61 million from the oil company for community programs.
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The council voted 5-4 to approve a conditional use permit for Chevron to replace a hydrogen plant, install new hydrogen-purifying equipment, build a new cogeneration power plant and replace other antiquated machinery.
"We're pleased with the vote and look forward to moving ahead with construction," said Dean O'Hair, a Chevron spokesman. "This project will make us more efficient and reliable than we already are."
The council also agreed to Chevron's offer of $61 million to help the community in the next decade, including funds to extend the Bay Trail and build solar and wind energy plants on Chevron property, and to support violence prevention, community health, job training and other programs.
After hearing often-heated public comment and staff testimony Tuesday and Wednesday nights before deliberating early Thursday, council members Nathaniel Bates, Ludmyrna Lopez, Harpreet Sandhu, John Marquez and Maria Viramontes voted to grant Chevron the permit.
Tom Butt, Jim Rogers, Tony Thurmond and Mayor Gayle McLaughlin voted against it.
Chevron's Richmond refinery is the largest in Northern California and provides about 25 percent of all the gasoline in Northern California. The new equipment will allow it to process about 1,000 extra barrels of gasoline a day.
Environmental and community groups fought the plan, saying it would lead to more emissions and allow Chevron to process heavier grades of crude oil.
"We still believe there's going to be a huge increase in pollution. We still have to stop this project and we're now looking at all our legal options," said Greg Karras, senior scientist for Communities for a Better Environment, one of the groups opposing the plan. "This fight is only getting started."
Much of the controversy centered on sulfur emissions, which Karras said cause respiratory and nervous system disorders when inhaled. Chevron's new equipment would allow the refinery to process crude oil that has 3 percent more sulfur than the oil it currently handles, refinery officials said.
But because the new facility would be more efficient and cleaner than the current plant, the refinery's overall emissions would actually decrease, O'Hair said.
Chevron hopes to begin construction on the refinery in August and finish in about four years. Labor unions have been ardent supporters of Chevron's plans because of the 1,200 construction jobs the project will create.
Critics blasted the package of benefits Chevron promised the city, saying the details are vague and that Chevron had agreed to several of them already. O'Hair said the refinery will hammer out details with city staff in the coming months.
The package of about 15 projects and programs includes $11 million for violence prevention and public safety programs; $10 million for the Richmond Community Fund; $6.7 million for job training, high school tutoring and other classes; and $5 million for the Bay Trail link.
Some council members complained about the lengthy permit process and environmental review, which lasted four years.
"It seems like everyone involved did everything they can to thwart what this community wants," said Butt at Wednesday's meeting. "I'm extremely disappointed with the way this process went. I don't know how it's going to end up, but I have a bad feeling about it."