RICHMOND -- The Aug. 6 fire at Chevron's Richmond refinery sent more than 15,200 people to hospitals, triggered multiple investigations and cast a sooty shadow over the aging facility and its corporate operator.
But after the accident, common ground has emerged among long-polarized factions in this city that has had a love-hate relationship with the refinery.
Everyone sees opportunity to benefit as Chevron, already weakened politically in Richmond, is widely expected to ramp up its community-investment efforts as it tries to improve its standing here and make amends.
The fire came at a time when Chevron's tumultuous relationship with the city seemed to be entering a period of detente after years of political clashes and recent setbacks, including a long-running battle over the size of its property tax bill. The company's aggressive fence-mending efforts, already reflected in a sharp rise in community giving, are expected to only accelerate in the wake of the black eye dealt by the fire that federal investigators have called a "near disaster."
"Chevron has been a good partner for a long time and done a lot to help the people of this community," said Joe Fisher, treasurer of the Black American Political Action Committee and a staunch Chevron supporter. "I think that they'll make up for the accident that occurred by being better, by doing more."
Andres Soto, an organizer for Communities for a Better Environment, a local
"We have leverage right now," he said. "We are going to have a real discussion about what kind of reparations Chevron is going to provide this community."
The fire is the latest in a string of setbacks for Chevron in a city where its political influence has waned after decades of dominating the landscape. Soto, like other Chevron critics, sees the fire as another blow to Chevron's local political power, and a boon to the progressive coalition looking to strengthen its grip.
After seeing its attempts to retrofit the century-old refinery grind to a halt amid backlash from the environmental community and watching City Council candidates it backed fall in the 2010 election, the oil giant seemed focused on building goodwill, largely through its philanthropic programs.
Even the city's mayor, Green Party member and longtime Chevron nemesis Gayle McLaughlin, was not averse to appearing at an event touting, at least in part, the company's good deeds. Chevron's sprawling red-white-and-blue corporate banner hung in the background in July as McLaughlin helped christen a new business focused on recycling and refurbishing electronics that received important financial backing from Chevron.
Chevron's strategy in recent years, according to observers and backed up by company records, has been to beef up its philanthropic and public relations campaigns.
Chevron donated $3.4 million in 2009, $3.7 million in 2010 and $3.4 million in 2011 to dozens of Richmond area organizations and nonprofits, more than three times higher than just a few years before, according to company records.
According to a study by the Pacific Institute, Chevron donated $1.25 million in 2006 and $1 million in 2007. The roughly $1 million-per-year rate was a constant in the mid- to late 1990s, as well.
"What I have seen is change and improvement from Chevron," said the Rev. Andre Shumake, a longtime local leader and anti-violence advocate in the city. "I think that in recent years community organizations and faith-based organizations have grown and done a better job of lobbying Chevron to invest in them."
Along with the robust community giving programs, Chevron's recent history has been marked by the arrival of a new refinery general manager, United Kingdom-born Nigel Hearne, who swiftly built a reputation for public pronouncements about a new emphasis on "community" within the refinery culture.
In April, as he was announcing achievements of a $1 million donation made in 2011 to seven nonprofits focused on improving science and math education and economic development, Hearne vowed to play a hands-on role in Richmond's renaissance.
"There is more than just money available at Chevron," Hearne said. "There are 1,200 people there (who) I have made an explicit expectation to that they find a way to participate in community growth."
Councilman Corky Booze said Hearne is key to Chevron's community-investment strategy. Hearne has issued refinery-wide communiques urging all employees to shop for goods and services in Richmond, and recently bought more than $1 million in new company vehicles from a Richmond car lot, according to Booze.
"As part of our community partnership model, Chevron is committed to investing in Richmond, making it a stronger community with opportunities for all of its residents to prosper," said Chevron spokeswoman Melissa Ritchie.
Shumake and Booze are among those who say the recent fire, and the backlash it has fueled, could lead to even more Chevron money sprinkling throughout the community.
"You can't force Chevron to put more into community programs, but I believe they will," Booze said. "They have a strong track record of increasing community giving programs, and the fire I think will mean they will go even beyond what we've seen."
But for some, including industry analyst, author and Chevron critic Antonia Juhasz, the San Ramon-based company's community-investment program merely masks a deeper problem.
"This is Chevron's oldest refinery and a neighbor to the corporate headquarters," Juhasz said. "Chevron should really value the refinery and this community, but it has continued to show a callousness and disregard for safety by putting profits above safety."
Chevron, whose refinery operated on the rolling hillsides before Richmond existed as a municipality, dominated local politics for decades, before the 21st-century emergence of Green Party and progressive candidates in the city.
In 2010, four years after McLaughlin's shocking victory, Chevron raised the stakes, and eyebrows, by putting nearly $1 million into the local election. The effort was unsuccessful, as two of the incumbents they backed were unseated.
The fire could burn Chevron-backed candidates this time around, but it could also fuel even greater spending by the refinery to compensate for the bad news.
Councilman Tom Butt, a longtime Chevron critic, believes the fire will pervade the November election.
"Now the political campaign will be much more interesting," Butt said.
And the fallout from the fire may produce more than compensation for residents and fresh meat for tough-on-Chevron candidates like Butt in November, when three council seats are up for grabs.
Others stand to gain, as well.
For environmentalists, the fire represents a chance to push tighter regulations and more nonfossil fuel energy production at the refinery. For bureaucrats, politicians and safety watchdogs, the multiagency scrutiny the fire has drawn presents a golden opportunity for sweeping reforms governing refineries nationwide and new air-quality monitoring equipment in Richmond neighborhoods.
And for residents and attorneys, the fire could spell financial compensation. More than 21,400 people have filed claims for damages with the corporation, which set up a hotline and opened claims centers after the fire.
"You take an accident like this, which thankfully was a near-miss in terms of loss of life, and you can come up with significant recommendations and improvements," said Contra Costa County Supervisor John Gioia, one of the leaders in pushing through a tough county refinery safety ordinance in 1999. "We can reduce the possibility that this will happen again."
Contact Robert Rogers at 510-262-2726. Follow him at Twitter.com/roberthrogers.