The Richmond City Council is 30 days from pursuing litigation against Chevron Corporation if negotiations fail to secure compensation for the August 2012 refinery fire. Legislators are seeking money from the oil company for damages and for expenses incurred by the city after the accident.
Council voted 5-2 to hire Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy, an antitrust, securities fraud and personal injury law firm based in Burlingame, to prepare to litigate if no agreement is reached by June 18.
The measure was approved Tuesday night after lengthy debate, with councilmember Nat Bates and Vice Mayor Corky Booze pushing back against efforts to sue Chevron, while councilmember Jael Myrick urged caution.
“I want us to make sure that the decision we make is smart, strategically,” Myrick said. “I’d suggest that we keep our arrow in the quiver, [rather] than just shoot.”
Bates and Booze were the last holdouts opposing the decision to retain legal counsel. They voted against Mayor Gayle McLaughlin’s motion to hire the lawyers immediately, and then opposed councilmember Jim Rogers’ proposal to hire the law firm after a grace period to allow time for negotiations with the oil giant.
“Go through this charade and do what you’ve got to do, it’s going to be a waste of time,” Bates said, before voting against both measures.
But McLaughlin said legal action will be the most effective way to ensure that Chevron takes full responsibility for the damage caused by the Aug. 6, 2012, fire, which destroyed part of its refinery and brought at least 23,700 health- and property-related claims from individual residents.
Chevron is currently involved in discussions with the city, but legislators have expressed dissatisfaction with the pace and progress of the negotiations. “Litigation is the strongest enticement for Chevron to come to the table, as they have done in their appeal against property taxes,” McLaughlin said. “It is appropriate that we also protect ourselves by having legal representation and taking legal action.”
“Chevron never does anything voluntarily,” community activist and Richmond Progressive Alliance member Michael Beer said. “We still haven’t got monitoring structures in place after years and years of negotiating. We have a little bit of leverage, and we’ve got to use it, and maybe we can get them to drop their property tax appeal as part of it.”
City manager Bill Lindsay first raised the issue of pursuing a lawsuit against Chevron a month ago, noting the corporation’s use of litigation to challenge its tax bill.
“I think that they should make restitution for the damage that they caused to the community, whether it is monetary or otherwise,” Lindsay said at the meeting. “It would be appropriate to engage Chevron in some additional conversations, but you can always walk away from a mediation.”
Environmental advocate Andreas Soto called Chevron an “international criminal organization,” saying the corporation should be held accountable. “I urge you to approve this legal action because there is a long history of the city council selling out to corporations like General Chemical,” he said. “It’s time that the community be part of this process.”
Chevron spokesperson Melissa Ritchie said the company hopes that talks will lead to stronger community partnership. “Chevron U.S.A. Inc. looks forward to continuing its ongoing discussions with the City of Richmond,” she said.