Chevron Discovers Safety 

Do people invoke overblown fears of domestic terrorism to grab open space next to their Richmond refinery? People do.

The fear of terrorism can be so useful. You can use it to lock up Arabs, deprive them of legal counsel, and not even notify their families. You can use it to invade and occupy a Middle Eastern country at the behest of a few neoconservative ideologues. Sometimes, you can even jeopardize delicate negotiations between the city of Richmond and the Navy Department, throw three years of planning into disarray at the eleventh hour, and demand the right to dictate the use of land that doesn't even belong to you. Which is exactly what ChevronTexaco did last month.

The land in question is Point Molate, an old fuel-storage depot that the Navy has promised to Richmond since the early 1990s. Comprising 290 acres and 1.4 miles of immensely valuable shoreline, the land could be one of the city's greatest assets, if only it could clean it. Underground fuel-storage tanks pockmark the landscape, and 15 percent of the developable land is covered with sewage treatment ponds. Each year, the Navy doles out roughly $1 million in security and maintenance costs related to Point Molate, and if the city were to assume ownership of the land, it would need to use it profitably enough to finance the maintenance.

City officials have argued with the Navy for eight years over just what the land could be used for. Offering spectacular views of the bay, rolling hills to the east, and some remarkably pristine vistas, Point Molate could be ideal for any number of housing, commercial, or recreational uses. Unfortunately, the presence of the refinery next door shot down any housing potential at the site. The Navy determined that if Chevron's nearby ammonia storage tanks were to blow a leak, whoever lived in luxury condos on Point Molate might keel over and snuff it. "They used very simple worst-case modeling that showed that release from the refinery could be harmful to people living in Point Molate, specifically dealing with ammonia storage tanks on the refinery property," said Bruce Beyeart, who sat on Richmond's commission to study the uses of Point Molate.

Still, everything seemed settled by July. The Navy was going to hand over the land to Richmond, which would then clean it up and develop the site for industrial and recreational uses: A few bed-and-breakfasts near the water, a nice park, maybe an office complex or two. Point Molate would be part of the larger Point San Pablo project, a five-mile stretch of shoreline from the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge to the Point San Pablo Yacht Harbor, where it would hook up with the rest of the Bay Trail. Everything seemed in place -- until ChevronTexaco spoke up.

On July 9, Gary Fisher, the refinery's general manager for external affairs, sent the city a letter that ground everything to a halt. City officials were hoping to develop the land for recreational use, but Fisher suddenly declared that Chevron would not tolerate that. "At one point we suggested that 'day use' might be acceptable," he wrote. "However, since September 11, 2001, much has changed. The refinery was recently designated by the US Office of Homeland Security and FBI as a critical infrastructure and key asset in Northern California. ... The refinery has taken this opportunity to review its position regarding the compatibility of potential development of these areas, and it is only fair that we share our conclusion with you."

Fisher decreed, one by one, that virtually all of Richmond's plans were out of the question. "The opportunity for trespassing and vandalism, including an avoidable increased risk for a potential terrorist act directed toward the refinery, increases with public access to the peninsula," he wrote. "Chevron Richmond refinery has concluded that the only land uses that are compatible with the long-term, safe, and secure operation of the refinery are industrial, manufacturing, or restricted open space. We cannot conceive of a scenario in which residential, recreational, commercial or other similar land use activities would be compatible."

ChevronTexaco is the biggest player in Richmond politics, and its pronouncements are treated like papal edicts. Since Fisher sent out his letter, city officials have met with ChevronTexaco representatives at least twice, hoping to reach some sort of agreement. According to city manager Isaiah Turner, while negotiations are cordial for now, the city will stand up to Chevron if its pushes too hard. "Our response was, 'We hear you, but we're gonna do first things first,'" he says. "We're gonna get the property conveyed and work with the council to figure out what's the best use for the citizens of Richmond."

But according to Councilman Tom Butt, Richmond always rolls over for Chevron. Butt has little reason to think the council will act differently this time. "In some ways, they've already lowered the price by opposing any use other than industrial out there, and everyone knows whatever Chevron wants, Chevron gets," he says. "It's pretty scary, that anyone could have enough clout that they could go in and take over one of the most astounding properties in the Bay Area and control its destiny. ... I've never seen a city councilmember yet stand up to Chevron, so I have to be kinda cynical about it. Chevron always gets what they want."

This deference wouldn't be nearly as frustrating if the company's worries weren't so overhyped. Spokesman Dean O'Hair refused to discuss the matter, but wrote that ChevronTexaco was dedicated to minimizing pedestrian access to the refinery. While the company parades its terror fears around like Chicken Little, it's been remarkably nonchalant about accidents caused by its own operation. No one can forget March 25, 1999, when the refinery blew one hundred pounds of lethal hydrogen sulfide gas over nearby residential neighborhoods. More than 1,400 residents flooded into emergency rooms. Just two months later, the refinery released sulfur gases, but failed to warn the county for three hours. In 2000, the Environmental Protection Agency claimed that Chevron's refinery led the nation in underreporting industrial accidents.

Since then, the refinery has gotten better at reporting accidents, but still leads the county's refineries in the incidence of toxic emissions. According to the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, the refinery has been issued 47 violation notices in the last 12 months -- almost one a week for the last year. Three weeks ago, the refinery released another batch of hydrogen sulfide into the air, setting off the county's warning system and panicking residents. According to Vivian Chang of the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, such incidents contribute to neighbors' constant sense of unease: "Knowing that there are 350 polluting agencies in Richmond, people live under the fear knowing that something could happen."

But hey, you never know when another Mohammed Atta might crawl out of the bay, so we've gotta keep the public out of Point Molate. This sort of argument has become a new post-9/11 tradition: wax hysteric about phantom terrorist fears, while studiously ignoring your own irresponsible stewardship. The Bush administration invents new terrorist alert systems even as it downplays a budget deficit of more than $400 billion. The Department of Homeland Security puts Quaker peace activists on "no-fly" lists, while allowing the nation's seaports to remain as porous as ever. And now ChevronTexaco invokes the nation's latest bogeyman to muscle in on land it doesn't own.

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