B Gallegos, New American Media, July 8, 2008.
On July 15 the Richmond, California City Council has a chance to make history. On that day it could be the first city in the United States to decide to protect the health of its residents and stand up to the Chevron oil company and impose a cap on its plans for further expansion.
To do that the council will have to turn down Chevron Richmond's proposed "Energy & Hydrogen Renewal" project to process thicker, dirtier crude oil. On the other hand, if the council approved it, it would expand some of the Chevron refinery's most polluting processes. It will increase Chevron's emissions of toxins, heavy metals and greenhouse gases; there is the potential to increase releases of some chemicals by 5 to 50 times current levels.
While many Californians are trying to reduce their contributions to greenhouse gas emissions and slow down global warming, Chevron will be doing the opposite and thereby put public health at greater risk.
Hundreds of residents have turned out to oppose the expansion project, fearing that it will further damage their neighborhood and their health. They've expressed their opposition at public hearings. Hundreds more have signed a petition opposing the project. On June 5, when the planning commission heard the application for expansion local residents lined up for hours waiting to raise their objections.
As a result, the Richmond Planning Commission voted 3-2 to impose a "crude cap" on refining dirty crude oil. That means that the company must strictly limit the emissions of certain pollutants that result from the refining process. A week later, however, the commission changed its mind, preferring a very weak crude cap. They refused to re-circulate an environmental impact report. The reversal was based on a report from an independent consultant who advised that a strict cap on dirty crude was unnecessary. The consultant admitted that his conclusion was based on data from Chevron, data that could not be revealed to either the commission or the public.
Yet a review of Chevron's emissions data and proposed expansion plans by MacArthur prize-winning chemist Wilma Subra determined that if the refinery processes heavier and more contaminated oil, this "will increase the number and severity of accidental releases." The increase in air pollution will hurt not only refinery workers but also those who live near the refinery.
People in Richmond still remember the 1993 spill from Chevron's sulfuric acid plant, which serves the refinery. That spill sent 20,000 people to the hospital. They already suffer from pollution created by some 350 other industrial polluting facilities in the city. Given these high levels of pollution it is not surprising that the city has the highest rate of hospitalization for asthma in Contra Costa County. Two of Richmond's neighborhoods, directly upwind from the refinery, have some of the highest rates of hospitalization for asthma in the entire state.
Even more alarming, with this expansion, Chevron may be creating a model for the entire oil industry. Chevron wants to have the competitive advantage of refining dirty crude and if approved, this will lock that process into place for up to 50 years. Oil companies across the country are watching to see if this is the future of their industry.
Chevron seems driven by the sole goal of making bigger profits from high gas prices. It has large reserves of high quality oil, but growing global demand makes low quality contaminated crude oils substantially cheaper for refiners. They can achieve price discounts of more than $5 per barrel, which would generate $400 million in yearly profits for a refinery the size of the Richmond operation.
There is now a global effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and to respond to the alarming data about the rate and impact of climate change. For Chevron to add to the problem is unconscionable.
When it meets July 15, the City Council is not bound by the cowardly acquiescence of the Planning Commission. It can send the report back with an order to strengthen the recommendations on the crude cap and environmental impact report.
As they discuss their choice, they will face the Richmond Alliance for Environmental Justice, a coalition that includes Communities for a Better Environment, the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, the West County Toxics Coalition, Atchison Village Environmental Committee, Richmond Greens and Richmond Progressive Alliance, which collectively represents thousands of people.
These organizations will urge the Richmond City Council to stop Chevron from further exposing residents to harmful toxics and pollution that cause premature death, cancer, and other health ailments. They will suggest that Chevron invest instead in a clean and green economy in Richmond and that Richmond residents have a transparent and meaningful public process to participate in decision-making about Chevron's operations. They can decide to support the community's demands for a for a clean environment and public health; or they can choose infamy by supporting obscene oil industry profits and ignoring global warming. The people of Richmond and the world will be watching.