Chevron’s billion-dollar upgrade project, initially proposed almost ten years ago, reached a major milestone this week when the city of Richmond released its more than 1100-page draft Environmental Impact Report (EIR) on the refinery modernization plan.
Union workers welcomed the prospect that the project finally will move forward and bring much-needed jobs to the city. But environmentalists were more skeptical, questioning the adequacy of efforts to offset a predicted increase in greenhouse gases from the project noted in the report.
The proposal includes replacing Chevron’s hydrogen plant, which is more than 50 years old. It also involves improving some existing equipment, such as the refinery’s sulfur recovery units, which remove sulfur from crude oil. Pipelines and electrical equipment will be upgraded and other energy efficiency measures will be adopted.
“The installation of more reliable equipment will ultimately improve community health and worker safety,” said Richmond Pastor Marcus Mitchell, on behalf of Plumbers and Steamfitters Local 342.
Many workers are hopeful that the project will soon be approved, bringing back hundreds of construction jobs that were lost when the project was halted in 2010.
“It impacted families and children, and they suffered,” said Greg Feere, an officer of the Contra Costa Building Trades Union. “This happened a month and a half before Christmas.”
Union worker Antoine Cloy of Richmond agreed. “We’re tired of all the people in our community not working,” Cloy said. He added he hopes the city will help Richmond workers benefit from the project by changing its hiring ordinance to require 40 percent local hires.
Chevron’s project has faced many hurdles over the years: from a lawsuit by the environmental advocacy group Communities for a Better Environment (CBE) that exposed gaping holes in the original EIR, to the company’s Richmond refinery explosion in 2012 that blackened the skies and sent more than a thousand people to the hospital claiming respiratory issues.
An appeals court ruled in 2010 that the city’s EIR on the project lacked information on greenhouse gas emissions and failed to disclose what types of crude oil would be processed by the new equipment.
“This is not going to happen again,” said Feere of the Building Trades Union, adding that the union’s attorneys are vetting the city’s new EIR.
Environmental groups sounded more skeptical as they continued their analysis of the voluminous new report.
“We’ve been waiting for this since CBE took them to court,” said Andres Soto, CBE Richmond Organizer. CBE’s scientists and attorneys are in the process of reviewing the lengthy new EIR to determine whether the city addressed all necessary environmental and safety issues.
“[Chevron has] an incredible responsibility to assess the impact of their process on climate change and health and safety,” Soto said.
The metallurgy of the materials used in the project is one issue to which Soto is paying particular attention. The 2012 fire was caused by corroded pipelines, he said.
Greenhouse gas emissions are another concern, Soto said. “[Chevron is] claiming that this is going to result in zero net emissions increase,” he said. “But what does that mean?”
The new EIR states that the project will in fact increase greenhouse gas emissions, but adds that, through mitigation measures, the project will have a “less-than-significant impact on climate change.”
This isn’t good enough, Soto said. “We’re looking for a reduction in emissions, not the status quo,” he said.
The proposed mitigation measures include a solar energy facility on Chevron property and an urban forestry program throughout the city. If any emissions increase were to occur, the EIR states, the refinery would purchase greenhouse gas allowances through the state’s cap-and-trade program.
Jeff Hartwig, Chevron’s project permitting manager called Richmond’s report “one of most robust and comprehensive EIRs in refining history.” The project will replace some of the refinery’s oldest equipment, he said.
The city and CBE are both planning to hold community meetings to educate the public about the EIR and the issues it raises about the Modernization Project. The Planning Commission will hear public comment for at least 45 days and then bring the decision to a vote. The vote can be appealed to the city council.
The city is holding a public workshop on Wednesday, April 2, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. in the Richmond Memorial Auditorium 403 Civic Center Plaza.
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated the public comment period for the draft EIR begins April 17. In fact, the public comment period began March 18 and runs through May 2. Oral comments can be given at the Planning Commission meeting on April 17. Written comments can be submitted at the city’s public workshops, or mailed to: Lina Velasco City of Richmond Planning Division 450 Civic Center Plaza P.O. Box 4046 Richmond, CA 94804.