The Battle Against Chevron

It’s difficult for me to express how excited I was when I read several minutes ago that on July 2nd, 2009, a county judge ordered Chevron to halt construction on the expansion of its Richmond oil refinery.

This is a huge step in a long and bitter battle fought between the world’s sixth-largest corporation, and a tough and dedicated coalition – including RAN – of environmental, anti-war, and public health groups.

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When Chevron submitted permit applications in 2005 to “expand” its refinery in Richmond, many of us were already suspicious. After all, this refinery – built over 100 years ago – had a bad history of accidents, including an explosion that sent 1,200 people to the emergency room in 1999. Local activists had been fighting Chevron for years, charging that the refinery was a clear example of environmental injustice: the 69,000 people who live within three miles of the refinery have income levels 43% lower than the Bay Area average, and 43% are Latino and 31% African-American.

Plus, this is the same corporation that sued Nigerian villagers that had the gall to try to hold Chevron accountable for its involvement in killing community protestors in 1998, and that is refusing to acknowledge responsibility for dumping 18 billion gallons of toxic waste into the Ecuadorian Amazon.

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Soon, researchers from Communities for a Better Environment discovered Chevron’s real purpose: the planned “expansion” of their Richmond refinery wouldn’t actual result in increased gasoline production at all. Rather, the goal was to convert the facility to be able to refine heavier, dirtier crude oil (resulting, of course, in more pollution for Richmond).

Where would this heavier, dirtier crude be coming from? Well, I’ll give you a hint: Chevron is planning to invest billions (but won’t admit how much) in two different projects in the Alberta Tar Sands. And Tar Sands oil is – you guessed it – much heavier and dirtier than conventional crude oil.

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So we decided that we weren’t going to take Chevron’s one-two punch (environmental injustice in Richmond and Alberta) sitting down. In March 2008, a coalition of groups, including RAN, shut down the front entrance to Chevron’s Richmond refinery; 24 of them were arrested. And for the last three years – in 2007, 2008, and 2009 – we’ve organized protests at Chevron’s shareholder meeting at their headquarters in San Ramon; this year, seven people blockaded Chevron’s front entrance, while community activists from Richmond, Ecuador, Nigeria, and Burma went inside the shareholder meeting to confront Chevron’s executives, and hold them responsible for the injustices their company had committed in their communities.

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And while taking to the streets, we also attended dozens of regulatory meetings and hearings, in order to stop the plant’s permits from being approved. We demanded that Chevron “cap the crude”: that they accept regulations preventing them from refining heavy, dirty crude. The Richmond planning commission at first agreed with the idea of a “crude cap” – and then mysteriously changed its mind several weeks later. The whole time, Chevron executives steadfastly denied that they planned on refining Tar Sands oil – but also refused to accept a crude cap (which wouldn’t have any effect on their operations if they weren’t planning on refining dirtier oil).

Finally, in July 2008, the permit went to the Richmond City Council. During 12 hours of hearings (which I sat through all 12 hours of), hundreds of community members stayed up until 2 am pleading for Chevron’s permit to be rejected – and Chevron employees, paid by their company to be at the hearings, defended the company and attacked (in one case, physically) the community members opposing the expansion. And in the end, the Richmond City Council voted 5-4 to approve the permit. One particularly awesome city council member then publicly accused Chevron of striking a backroom deal with three of the council’s members – and then stood up, applauded the community protesters, and walked out on the meeting.

But then, Chevron’s luck began to change – proving that while you can buy a city council, you can’t beat the people when they have justice on their side.

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In November 2008, Richmond voters kicked out two pro-Chevron city council members, replacing them with solid progressives. They also passed Measure T, which forces Chevron to pay the city $26 million per year in taxes.

Then, several months later, three environmental groups sued Chevron and the City of Richmond, arguing that the city approved a highly flawed environmental impact report, and that Chevron should be sent back to the drawing board. And the judge saw right through Chevron’s shenanigans, and ruled on June 11 that the environmental impact report was in fact flawed.

But Chevron ignored the court’s ruling – saying that it was going to appeal – and just continued construction work. So the three environmental groups petitioned the judge to issue and injunction forcing Chevron to stop work.

And today, Judge Barbara Zuniga ordered Chevron to stop work on its refinery expansion within 60 days.

This is a huge victory for environmental justice. It’s a huge victory for the coalition of groups – Communities for a Better Environment, West County Toxics Coalition, Asian-Pacific Environmental Network, Amazon Watch, Direct Action to Stop the War, Global Exchange, and RAN, among many others – who have fought for years to halt this expansion.

This fight definitely isn’t over yet. Chevron is going to appeal the ruling. And if they lose the appeal, it still only means that they have to go back to the drawing board on this project; they can still redo the environmental impact report, and re-submit it to the city.

But this time, they’re going to face a city council in which two of Chevron’s cronies have since been voted out of office.

And they’re also going to be facing off against a people’s movement that isn’t going to stop fighting this plan until Chevron stops willfully trampling on the health of poor people of color in Richmond, and starts running a refinery that is clean enough that Chevron’s CEO would be willing to live next door to it.

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CAP THE CRUDE! ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE FOR RICHMOND NOW!


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