By Katherine Tam
West County Times
Posted: 05/20/2009 09:56:11 AM PDT
Updated: 05/20/2009 07:47:52 PM PDT
Environmental activists gained ground this week in their legal challenge of Chevron's plan to replace decades-old equipment at its Richmond refinery, a plan the activists say could increase pollution in the area and pose a public health risk.
Contra Costa Superior Court Judge Barbara Zuniga issued a tentative ruling, stating that a city-approved environmental impact report is "unclear and inconsistent" on whether the project enables Chevron to process heavier crude. The city also "improperly" deferred developing measures to deal with greenhouse gas emissions for up to a year, she said.
"With respect to other issues raised by petitioners, given that EIR is already in need of revision, addressing additional issue [sic] seems to be rather moot," Zuniga wrote.
The tentative ruling comes eight months after the West County Toxics Coalition of Richmond and Communities for a Better Environment and the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, both of Oakland, filed a lawsuit against the city of Richmond and Chevron in state Superior Court. The environmental groups argue that the city's environmental review was flawed and failed to disclose, analyze and mitigate all the potential impacts.
The city and the oil giant dispute these claims.
Chevron's plan to replace its hydrogen plant, power plant and reformer to refine a wider range of crude with higher sulfur content has been one of the most hotly contested and polarizing issues in Richmond,
drawing standing-room-only crowds to hearings and sparking dozens of protests.
The oil giant contends it will continue to refine light to intermediate crudes and insists its project is not a public health risk. But opponents say the project would allow the processing of heavier crude, which could increase pollutants by 5 to 50 times, and demanded the city limit the amount and kind of oil Chevron can refine.
Last summer, a divided Richmond City Council certified the environmental report and approved the project with about 70 provisions, including monitoring requirements and a limit on the amount of crude running through a piece of equipment considered key to refining. Opponents said the provisions aren't extensive enough to protect the public, and they made good on their promise to sue.
On Wednesday morning, the parties gathered in Superior Court in Martinez to make arguments, focusing mainly on the crude and how greenhouse gases would be mitigated.
Will Rostov, an Earthjustice attorney representing the environmental groups, said, "The EIR did fail as an informative document," adding that the city and Chevron "masked the crude switch."
The city and Chevron countered the charge. Ellen Garber, an attorney with San Francisco-based Shute, Mihaly and Weinberger, representing the city, said: "The city believes the process was at all times as transparent as it can be. To say the city tried to trick the public cannot be found anywhere in the record and need not have been said."
Zuniga said she would take the information into consideration, and she recessed the hearing about 11:30 a.m. Wednesday. It is unclear when the hearing will resume or when a final ruling might be issued.
The parties milled around on the steps of the courthouse afterward. Rostov said the environmental groups would wait to hear the outcome of Zuniga's deliberation. Refinery spokesman Dean O'Hair said the hearing was a chance for Chevron to clarify its project for Zuniga and said the city's environmental review had been thorough.
Chevron has begun constructing part of the project, but two of the components — the power plant replacement and the new continuous catalyst reformer — are delayed indefinitely.
Legally, the permit the city issued gives Chevron until July 2013 to build these components, officials said.
The delay does not affect payouts from a $61 million community benefits agreement, a deal in which Chevron promised to fund police, job training, health care and other programs, they said. The agreement was approved the same day as the Chevron project.
Reach Katherine Tam at 510-262-2787 or firstname.lastname@example.org.