Chevron, environmentalists must wait for ruling on Richmond refinery project

By Katherine Tam
Wednesday, February 24, 2010

 

SAN FRANCISCO — Chevron and their environmentalist critics on Tuesday finally got their day in state appellate court, duking it out over whether the oil company's plan to replace old equipment at its Richmond refinery could increase pollution and harm public health.

The wait for a ruling could be as long as three months.

"By talking in generalities, they misled the public," Will Rostov, the attorney representing a trio of environmental groups, argued in the state Court of Appeal in San Francisco. "The question is will it be heavier (crude oil) and will that result in more pollution?"

Chevron defended its plan during the hourlong hearing and insisted the project's environmental impact report is clear on what kind of crude would be refined.

"It's not a failure-to-disclose case," said Ronald Van Buskirk, attorney for Chevron.

Dozens of people who have followed the case closely packed the gallery: local environmental activists, labor unions eager for construction jobs, refinery representatives and staff members from the state Attorney General's Office. The crowd was larger than typical in this courtroom.

The parties now await a ruling, which Judge Ignazio Ruvolo said would take up to 90 days.

Construction on Chevron's project to replace its power plant, hydrogen plant and reformer has been at a standstill since July, when a Contra Costa County Superior Court judge found the project's environmental report unclear, especially on the issue of what crudes would be processed. Chevron is appealing.

Negotiations aimed at avoiding a prolonged legal battle have hit a wall. A settlement appears elusive, despite persistent prodding from state lawmakers, the Attorney General's Office and labor unions.

Ruvolo asked Tuesday about the likelihood of a settlement within 60 days; Van Buskirk said it would be difficult, adding that the parties are still far apart.

After the hearing, locals milled about outside the courtroom speculating on how soon a ruling might come.

Greg Feere, chief executive officer of the Contra Costa Building and Construction Trades Council, hopes the parties will return to the table and reach a middle ground. About 1,250 were laid off when the project stopped under the July court order, he said.

"There is no other job to send them to. After so long, you run out of health benefits," Feere said. "There's a lot of frustration, a lot of anger, a lot scared about what kind of future lies ahead. We would love to see things settled."

The project was to employ 3,000 in construction jobs at its peak, Feere said, and fuel 7,000 secondary jobs ranging from materials vendors to payroll clerks.

There is no reason Richmond can't have both jobs and environmental guarantees, project opponents say.

"I would hope Chevron realizes that we're not interested in closing Chevron down," said Richmond resident Ken Davis, who said he has respiratory problems in the morning.

"Chevron has caused some conditions that make it difficult for us to live. Let's deal with mitigation."

Chevron argues that it meets some of the toughest environmental limits. The refinery has reduced emissions of criteria pollutants by 70 percent since the 1970s, spokesman Brent Tippen said.

During Tuesday's court hearing, the parties also addressed whether developing a plan to deal with greenhouse gases later is legal and whether the project's environmental impact report should have analyzed Praxair's proposal to construct a 22-mile underground hydrogen pipeline stretching from the Chevron refinery to plants in Martinez and possibly Rodeo.


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