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Judge Disallows Environmental Review of Chevron Refinery Expansion

RICHMOND, California, June 7, 2009 (ENS) – The Environmental Impact Report for a major expansion at the Chevron Refinery in Richmond, California is inadequate, a Contra Costa County Superior Court judge has ruled in a case brought by environmental, community, and public health groups.

In her decision Friday, Judge Barbara Zuniga decided that the environmental review failed to disclose that the proposed expansion would allow Chevron to process heavier crude oil than the facility processes now.

Three groups sued the City of Richmond for accepting a flawed Environmental Impact Report that did not fully analyze the project’s health and environmental impacts.

The groups claimed that heavier crude oil can contain higher amounts of contaminants, such as mercury and selenium, which can cause serious health problems.

Judge Zuniga wrote, “The [Final Environmental Impact Report] project description is unclear and inconsistent as to whether [the] project will or will not enable Chevron to process a heavier crude slate than it is currently processing.”

The court also held that the city improperly allowed Chevron to wait a year after the Environmental Impact Report process was completed before developing a plan to mitigate its greenhouse gases.

This is one of the first decisions addressing the deferral of greenhouse gas mitigations under the California Environmental Quality Act, says Earthjustice attorney Will Rostov, who argued the case for the plaintiff groups.

Chevron’s oil refinery in Richmond, California (Photo by Todd Port)

Finally, the court agreed with plaintiffs that the Environmental Impact Report had omitted an important component of the expansion, a hydrogen pipeline. The pipeline would attach to a newly approved hydrogen plant – one of the project’s four key components – and stretch to the ConocoPhillips Rodeo Refinery and Shell’s Martinez refinery.

“The City of Richmond signed off on an oil refinery expansion plan that likely would have opened the gates for Chevron to refine heavier, dirtier crude oil,” said Rostov. “This could have increased pollution in Richmond and surrounding areas.”

“The decision is a victory for the community,” said Koy Seng Saechao, a community leader with the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, one of the plaintiff groups. “We need green and healthy solutions from Chevron and our city, not more pollution. The decision protects my family and neighbors from even more pollution and allows us to plan for a healthier future.”

Chevron’s Richmond Refinery is one of the largest and oldest refineries on the West Coast, producing petroleum products since the early 20th century. It covers 2,900 acres, has 5,000 miles of pipelines, and hundreds of large tanks that can hold up to 15 million barrels of crude, gasoline, jet fuel, diesel, lube oil, wax, and other chemicals produced by the refinery.

Chevron first approached the the City of Richmond about the expansion project in October 2004.

In 2008, the city issued a permit to Chevron to expand the refinery, allowing it to process low-quality crude oil, including tar sands, and export hydrogen to four other Bay Area oil refineries.

According to the Expert Report of G.E. Dolbear & Associates, Inc. prepared for the California Attorney General, the increased refinery capacity “will allow Chevron to process increased levels of heavier crudes, and, if it does so, the refinery will likely increase its emissions of pollutants.”

The Dolbear report also states, “If this Project enables Chevron to use a different, dirtier crude mix with greater polluting potential, this fact is not disclosed in the FEIR and the FEIR is legally deficient under CEQA [California Environmental Quality Act] on this issue.”

The Chevron expansion project has been subject of a two year campaign by the nonprofit group Communities for a Better Environment, which is demanding no net pollution increase, a fund for Richmond’s future, and public involvement, including recirculation of the Environmental Impact Report.

In September 2008, Communities for a Better Environment, Asian Pacific Environmental Network, and West County Toxics filed the lawsuit to force the city to revise and recirculate the EIR, disclosing, analyzing and mitigating the project’s environmental health and justice impacts.

Communities in Richmond, particularly low-income and communities of color, already suffer from industrial pollution-related health problems, including high rates of asthma and cancer. The Chevron refinery is the largest industrial polluter in the region.

“Chevron must stop its toxic assault on poor people of color,” said Dr. Henry Clark of the plaintiff West County Toxics Coalition. “This is a significant environmental justice victory for Richmond and the country.”

“Protecting our communities from additional toxic and global warming pollution is a huge victory,” said Jessica Tovar, a community organizer with Communities for a Better Environment. “This is an opportunity to invest in clean green energy as a solution, instead of compromising our health by locking in a generation of refining dirtier crude oil.”

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