RICHMOND -- As federal, state and regional agencies continue to investigate a massive August fire that sent thousands to the hospital, Chevron's refinery here is encountering a growing backlash and demands for action by local leaders and activists.
Less than 24 hours after a unanimous City Council authorized city staff to "ensure that Chevron uses the highest standards and best technology in the repair of their crude unit," protesters gathered downtown and marched to the refinery, demanding reforms and financial compensation for the city and its residents.
"The heat is on," said Henry Clark, director of the West County Toxics Coalition and a longtime Chevron critic. "The community has the momentum."
About 30 people staged near the Richmond BART station at 3 p.m., toting signs and haranguing Chevron through loudspeakers as commuters walked by. They marched west through the transit village toward Point Richmond with police escorts, carrying a 20-foot-long "Occupy Chevron" banner, gaining in numbers to about 100 as they made stops en route to the sidewalk outside the refinery's front gates.
Clark said Chevron critics must achieve strict regulations and oversight over the planned repair of the downed crude unit and a larger refinery renewal project that still awaits court approval.
"We must ensure that any new project has zero net increase in emissions," Clark said. "Any project that is not emission-neutral is not something we're going to let happen."
Wednesday's protest, touted as "Occupy Chevron," was organized by a half-dozen community organizations and planned in combination with the council resolution passed the night before.
The resolution calls on the global energy giant's local refinery to improve safety, pay its "fair share" of taxes, hire more local residents, aid the city in education and economic development initiatives, and expedite installation of air quality monitors in the city, which it previously agreed to as part of a 2010 tax settlement. Calls for more investment in renewables like solar energy are growing louder as well.
The Aug. 6 fire, caused by a deteriorated pipe in the No. 4 crude unit, caused more than 15,000 residents to seek treatment at area hospitals. Chevron could face criminal charges if found negligent.
"It's our duty as a governing body to express expectations of our corporate neighbor," said Councilwoman Jovanka Beckles, who co-sponsored the resolution with Mayor Gayle McLaughlin.
The resolution and the protest follow days of fresh criticism of the refinery.
In the past week, Chevron has declined to enter into long-term leases for commercial and office space in the city's Marina Bay community and filed a new court challenge to a Contra Costa County property tax appeals board decision last spring that found the Richmond refinery was under-assessed by as much as $27 million. State legislators have also called for consideration of new regulations on aging refineries.
Chevron officials have said the 8-inch steel pipe whose failure caused the fire may have deteriorated because of low silicon content, which allowed the oil's heat and sulfur to corrode it more quickly.
No Chevron representatives spoke publicly at Tuesday's meeting, but several residents criticized the resolution as symbolic and vague.
"This is a bold resolution," said resident Don Gosney. "But how do you accomplish this. ... What are consequences if they fail? This resolution is so poorly worded it's embarrassing."
In a statement released earlier in the week, Chevron announced that it has "long been committed to building a stronger community in Richmond, and we continue to actively work on several fronts to do that.
"Obviously, though, our long-term future in Richmond is uncertain until our refinery modernization project is successfully permitted," the statement read.
City Manager Bill Lindsay said Wednesday the council resolution lacked specific requirements, but that language emphasizing "best available technology" was significant to the repair work that will be done on the crude unit.
"Our staff will work in closer coordination with the air district in terms of our permit review for the repair work," Lindsay said, adding that exactly how new standards are applied will be determined by inspecting officials from both agencies.
The Richmond refinery, Chevron's oldest, pays more than $30 million annually to the city in total taxes, Lindsay said, nearly a third of the city's total general fund budget. It employs about 1,200 people, but fewer than 10 percent are Richmond residents, according to Chevron.
Chevron's news release said the company is "working diligently with local, state and federal officials to understand the causes of the Aug. 6 fire so we can begin rebuilding the refinery and moving back to full production and the broad economic benefits that the refinery provides to the local economy."