By Mary Flynn
The company that has ignited massive protests from community organizations and environmental groups is currently undergoing maintenance operations that release harmful gases into the air around Richmond. The flaring, as the maintenance is called, isn’t attracting much public attention, but tensions between the company and Richmond continue to simmer beneath the surface of city life.
The Richmond-based Chevron oil refinery notified residents about the flaring – a combustion that occurs when vented gases are released into the atmosphere – a few weeks ago. Flares are a way to release pressure inside the processing units when the pressure and temperatures become too much for the units to handle safely.
Flaring has been a longtime concern for public health officials and environmental groups in Richmond. It emits clouds of hydrocarbons, toxic chemicals like mercury or carbon monoxide, and other pollutants into the atmosphere.
The refinery, under pressure from environmental groups, residents and local politicians, has made improvements in minimizing its environmental impact over the past five years. But some residents continue to wonder if the refinery brings enough benefits to Richmond to outweigh its drawbacks, while others claim that the city would lose a major source of revenue if tensions forced the refinery to close.
“The refinery contributes a lot to the city,” said Richmond resident Jessica Oden, 24. “But at the end of the day, when you see the refinery and think, yeah, you help us out as far as financial, but as far as our health, you disregard it.”
Oden described the conundrum that locals have battled over for years. A fight erupted recently, for instance, over proposed expansions to the refinery. The company and pro-business advocates argued that the changes would bring more jobs to the area. Environmental advocates argued against the expansion, and won a court order that stopped the addition to the refinery.
It was one of a few key victories for environmentalists since 2005.
The refinery, which produces mostly transportation fuels and chemicals used to make other products, was built before the city itself in 1902. The refinery sits atop 2,900 acres of land, and refines approximately 240,000 barrels of crude oil per day.
For years, the refinery towers flared frequently and often, said Greg Karras, the senior scientist at Communities for a Better Environment (CBE), a community-based, environmental justice organization.
“In terms of acute exposures to toxic and unhealthful air pollutants,” Karras said, “flaring is by far the biggest and most repetitive exposure source.”
Studies have shown that prolonged exposure to these pollutants can increase the risk of cancer, permanent respiratory conditions and even death.
Chevron is quick to point to its decrease in the use of flares in recent years. An email from Chevron spokesperson Melissa Ritchie stated that the Richmond refinery flaring levels in 2010 were reduced by more than 95% compared to the 2004-2006 levels, and the current flaring is well within the parameters established of their Bay Area Air Quality Management District BAAQMD-approved Flare Minimization Plan.
The requirement for such a plan was the first major victory for environmental activists in Richmond.
Richmond residents had been asking BAAQMD to measure Chevron’s chemical output for many years, according to Karras. They complained about the flaring or occasional explosions and gas releases emanating from the refinery, and the eye, nose and respiratory problems that ensued.
It wasn’t until 2001 that, at the urging of the community, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District conducted a study of flaring emissions. Their findings proved that the amount of toxic chemicals released from the Chevron refinery was far more than anyone had imagined.
Environmental groups, joining forces under the Environmental Justice Air Quality Coalition, convinced the Air District to monitor the refinery flares and measure their pollution output, a rule that eventually became known as Rule 12-11.
The major victory came in 2005 when the Air District established Rule 12-12, which regulated and limited the number of flaring events the refineries were allowed. Rule 12-12 requires that Bay Area oil refineries disclose the number of flaring events, and also the steps the refinery will take to manage flares in the future.
The rule is the most comprehensive flare control rule in the country, Karras said, because it limits refinery flares to their intended purpose: as emergency safety devices.
“Fifty years of complaining to the Air District didn’t work until the community got organized and amassed and came back, day after day, for a year,” Karras said.
The Environmental Protection agency recently released its Toxic Release Inventory report for 2010, and it said that even with the improvements, the Richmond refinery released nearly 435,000 pounds of toxic chemicals into the atmosphere last year.
According to the BAAAQMD, Ritchie said, Chevron’s “use of flares was the lowest of all Bay Area refineries in 2009, the most recent year for which the district has compiled data.”
For some, this effort is sufficient. “We’ve got to tolerate some of these things,” said longtime city councilmember Nat Bates.
“Richmond has always been and continues to be an industrial city,” Bates said, acknowledging that that can cause problems for the environment.
“That’s the nature of a big industrial city,” he said.
Richmond is home to about 100,000 people.
Bates is concerned that if the community organizations or city council continue to make attempts to interfere with the way Chevron does business, it will only encourage them to go elsewhere, something the city cannot afford.
“The jobs will go with it, the tax revenue will go with it,” Bates said. “Where is that money going to come from?”
Approximately 10 percent of the city’s tax revenue comes from Chevron, according to a report from the Pacific Institute. In addition, a tax settlement reached in 2010 between the city, CBE and Chevron determined that the oil company would pay $114 million over the next 15 years.
Chevron employs approximately 2,600 people, and hires another 900 as contractors, but of those, only about 7 percent of its employees live in Richmond.
Chevron advertises itself as “a good neighbor” on its website, and last year the corporation donated over $3.7 million to local non-profits and community organizations.
Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin said that in light of the profits the company is making annually, that these are “modest donations.” The city’s first Green party mayor and involved with the Richmond Progressive Alliance, McLaughlin is a known adversary of Chevron.
She suggests the company gives money to nonprofits and community organizations in an attempt to win their support.
“But people in the community are pretty wise to this,” she said.
The city is currently in dialogue with Chevron over another proposal to expand the Richmond refinery. The city council approved the original application in 2005, but it concerned many residents. They worried that the oil company intended to refine a dirtier grade of fuel, which would only worsen the air quality, and that the land-use permits were being issued without considering greenhouse emission impact.
The refinery began construction on the project in 2008, but the Contra Costa Superior court issued an injunction to stop in summer 2009. The court ruled the company’s Environmental Impact Report (EIR) failed to indicate whether it would enable Chevron to process a heavier crude.
Chevron appealed the decision, and community and environmental groups packed the court of appeals in San Francisco. The court ruled in favor of the community and the expansion project was put off indefinitely.
McLaughlin recalled how community members came out in droves to speak out against the previous EIR, and it was very influential.
“If we can’t come to terms with a verifiable project that brings about a better refinery, a healthier atmosphere, and state of the art pollution controls,” she said, “I expect that hundreds from the community will come out and speak against any type of environmental review that refuses to guarantee those protections. It’s an ongoing battle.”
Councilmember Bates thinks the discussion needs to focus more on the city’s other issues. Richmond contends with high crime rates, higher than average rates of poverty, and widespread unemployment, particularly in the African American community.
“We need to coexist and we need to work together. What problems we have, we need to sit down and intelligently resolve them,” he said.
“Richmond needs Chevron, and Chevron needs Richmond,” Bates said.