Chevron's Spheres of Influence 

Activists accuse Richmond oil refinery of illegally thwarting environmental reviews, and a beholden city of passing the buck.

The best view of the Chevron Richmond Refinery, according to community activist Ethel Dotson, who has lived in this city for fifty years, is from the top of the West Contra Costa Sanitary Landfill, which rises to a lopped-off mound just to the north. To get here you'll need $3 and a trunk full of garbage: Landfill operators don't welcome sightseers, and it's only after Dotson berates them from the passenger seat that the men in the office grudgingly dispense the low-price dumping permit.

From the top of this dusty, stinky, fake mountain, you can see almost the full spread of storage tanks, flares, and cracking towers, where crude oil is separated into salable chemicals. "Those are the ones," says Dotson, pointing down to a cluster of fourteen spherical tanks on stilts, like huge golf balls, each the size of a small house. These are liquid petroleum gas (LPG) spheres, and they're used to store the highly explosive by-products of the refining process.

ChevronTexaco wants to build two new spheres that would each hold as much as 30,000 barrels, fifty percent more than the current models can handle. The company says this expanded capacity is part of its routine maintenance to increase "operating flexibility" at the refinery. But the plant's neighbors are protesting, and in July the Oakland-based environmental nonprofit Communities for a Better Environment, or CBE, sued the Richmond City Council which, in June, gave the company a green light to build the spheres despite the lack of an environmental impact review.

The problem isn't so much the spheres themselves, the activists say, as that ChevronTexaco appears to be engaging in an illegal practice known as "piecemealing," in which a big project is divided into smaller ones to avoid environmental review. As a result, they say, plant neighbors will neither be privy to the impacts of the new spheres, nor will they be able to assess the cumulative effect of a host of related projects the Richmond refinery has planned. And people around here are all too accustomed to being kept ignorant about the work done in their midst.

The Dotsons, for one, have always lived downwind of something. In 1950, Ethel's parents moved the family from Louisiana, where they lived near a Conoco refinery, to Richmond's Seaport Project, a monstrous development built to house WWII shipyard employees. Among its neighbors were Stauffer Chemical, which produced sulfuric acid at its Richmond plant, and the California Cap Company, which produced explosives. The combination produced a noxious odor that "would just stink, stink, stink all around us," says Dotson.

In those days, residents concerned about the smell simply stayed indoors. With the local economy in decline following the war, environmental questions went largely unanswered. In the poorer parts of Richmond, near the big factories, residents didn't know what, exactly, was wrong with the air. They just knew it stank.

Industry operates differently these days, at least in theory. The 1970 California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA, mandates that the developer of any significant project publish information about the project, study its environmental effects, and mitigate them if necessary. The law introduced a public-review process, a sort of official haggling period during which communities can demand conditions like job training, a health clinic, or tweaks to the facility design in exchange for the permission to build.

The law specifically prohibits piecemealing in order to ensure that projects are looked at holistically, and that things like overall air pollution, risk of accidents, or ways that a project can be made safer or cleaner are taken into account.

Richmond Chevron first filed its application for the spheres in June 2001. To the scientists at Communities for a Better Environment, it was a red flag: Refineries across the state are building LPG storage facilities, not to "increase operating flexibility," as ChevronTexaco maintains, but because they have to.

A new state law requires, among other things, that refineries replace the additive MTBE with cleaner-burning ethanol by the year's end. Ethanol has a higher vapor pressure than MTBE, and because there's a limit on how high the vapor pressure of gasoline can be, refineries need to take something out of the gas mixture to compensate. The solution is to remove pentanes -- a volatile byproduct of oil distillation. Where to put this explosive liquid? LPG spheres, of course.

To comply with the new law, nearly every refinery in the state plans to increase its pentane-storage capacity. Yet nearly all -- including ChevronTexaco's refinery in Southern California -- are completing environmental impact reviews for this and all the other state-mandated projects. So why, asked the local activists, was Richmond Chevron, one of the largest refineries in the state, avoiding a review process undertaken by its peers?

To the nonprofit, it looked like piecemealing. Most striking to CBE staff was that ChevronTexaco had admitted in a preliminary study that the new spheres were intended to help it meet the new state requirements. "In order to comply with new California gasoline regulations," the study read, "the refinery would blend fewer pentanes [which will] increase the refinery's need for LPG storage." The refiner then flip-flopped. The passage in question was "taken out" of the report, according to ChevronTexaco spokesman Dean O'Hair. The need for the spheres, he noted, was so the company could avoid storing the gases in railway cars, which are less secure.

Yet neither would it promise not to store the pentanes in railway cars anymore if the spheres were built. Eventually, Richmond leaders added a provision to the company's use permit stating that it could use the train cars only for "temporary storage, or when spheres are undergoing maintenance," a condition local activists say lacks teeth. Besides, says CBE staff attorney Adrienne Bloch, the math doesn't add up. "If they're going to clean out these 20,000-barrel tanks one at a time, why would they need two 30,000 barrels to accomplish that?" she says. "It doesn't compute."

A few days before the council approved the spheres, Bloch and CBE staff scientist Julia May turned up another ChevronTexaco permit application filed with Richmond, this one for an ethanol blending plant. It was another red flag: The new state law requires expanded ethanol production, and refineries across the state are also building ethanol-blending facilities. Unlike Richmond Chevron, virtually all are conducting environmental reviews of that, too.

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