RICHMOND, California, September 8, 2008 (ENS) - Environmental justice groups have filed a lawsuit challenging the Richmond City Council's approval of Chevron's refinery expansion project. At issue is an environmental review that the groups claim concealed the fact that the expanded refinery would process heavier, dirtier oil, resulting in higher levels of air pollution and increased risks of accidents and oil spills.
"The City Council failed its legal and moral obligation to protect our health," said Richmond resident Torm Nompraseurt of the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, one of the plaintiff groups. "Those dangerous chemicals are going to endanger me, my family, and my neighbors but the city didn't even look at what Chevron is really going to be doing."
Communities in Richmond, particularly low-income and communities of color, are overburdened with health problems related to exposure to industrial pollution, including high rates of asthma and cancer. The Chevron refinery, located on San Francisco Bay, is the largest industrial polluter in the area.
The lawsuit was filed Thursday in Contra Costa County Superior Court on behalf of the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, Communities for a Better Environment, and the West County Toxics Coalition.
The Richmond Refinery is one of the largest and oldest refineries on the West Coast. 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 oil, gasoline, jet fuel, diesel, lube oil, wax, and other chemicals produced by the refinery.
The expansion would allow heavier and dirtier crude oil to be processed at the refinery, which would increase releases of mercury, selenium, toxic sulfur compounds, and greenhouse gases, the groups point out.
"Chevron's project would lock in a fundamental switch to dirtier oil refining that increases toxic and climate-poisoning pollution drastically when avoiding these impacts is feasible," said Greg Karras, a senior scientist with Communities for a Better Environment. "The city violated the community's right to know about and act on this information."
Hundreds of residents jammed the City Council hearings in July demanding the City Council limit the refinery from processing dirtier crude oils and re-do the environmental impact report to consider what Chevron actually plans to build.
Instead, the groups complain, Chevron made a multi-million dollar offer of funding for local projects in exchange for the city's approval of the refinery expansion with weakened environmental protections and less public review of future refinery projects. Chevron valued its offer at about $61 million.
City and Chevron officials negotiated a proposed contract to execute the deal without public input, and presented it at the City Council's hearing on the project without the public notice required by state open government laws, the groups claim in their lawsuit.
"Chevron must stop its toxic assault on poor people of color in Richmond," said Henry Clark, executive director of the West County Toxics Coalition. "The City Council is selling out our community, but our health is not for sale. We will fight this until we achieve environmental justice."
"The California Environmental Quality Act requires government agencies to look before they leap by analyzing and mitigating all significant environmental impacts" said Will Rostov, an attorney for Earthjustice, who represents the environmental justice groups in court. "The city's environmental review fails in its most basic purpose."
A poll conducted by David Binder Research indicated that 73 percent of Richmond voters opposed the approval of the Chevron expansion until the environmental and health impacts of refining heavier crude oil were fully reviewed in a revised Environmental Impact Statement.
In addition, 75 percent of voters polled said it was very important or extremely important that any projects or funding between Chevron and the City Council be determined in an open public process.
A 56 percent majority of respondents have heard "nothing at all" about the negotiation between the City Council and Chevron to provide funding for local projects, while the City Council was voting on the refinery expansion project.
David Binder Research surveyed 400 likely voters in the city of Richmond between July 8 and 10, 2008, with a margin of error of ±4.9 percent.
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