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Is racism ok when it happens in an environmental context? Whitman's upset that Chevron could not proceed with its project to upgrade a refinery in California that is a major source of pollution. The refinery is located in a minority and low-income community. Studies have shown that decisions to locate polluting facilities in low-income and minority communities are not mere happenstance.  The community already suffers high rates of illness and disease and a horrible quality of life. Chevron wanted to upgrade its facility without clearly disclosing what type of crude would be refined, but indications are that the upgrade would allow it to handle dirtier crude oils, resulting in more pollution.  When a court stopped the project because Chevron did not comply with our law, Whitman complained that 1,000 construction jobs were lost. This job meme is often used to justify the initial location of the polluting facilities. Why is Whitman not delighted about the lives that so far have been spared more sickness and death had this project moved forward?

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Thanks to the fossil-fuel privilege, everyone pays a fossil-fuel tax when we pay the external costs (including health care, quality of life) as corporate welfare for the fossil-fuel industry. But poor/minority communities pay far more for a "separate but equal" life of living in areas of the industrial dumping grounds where a number of contaminated sites and industries pollute air, water and land. Society wants the goods and services produced as long as the polluting industries are not-in-my-back-yard.

Multiple studies document that polluting industries are more likely to be located in minority neighborhoods. For years, our government has acknowledged this disparate treatment with its adverse impacts on health, education and quality of life.

Case in point is the Chevron refinery in Richmond, California, already a major polluter that is situated in a minority and low-income community:

This refinery is the third-largest source of pollution in Northern California, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. It released 604,483 pounds of chemicals in 2009, including benzene, lead and acids, that have real consequences for public health.

This is life in Richmond:

Chevron's Richmond facilities have seen four major accidents since the chemical explosion in 1999 that released an 18,000-pound cloud of sulfur dioxide into the air and sent hundreds to the hospital. The refinery's most recent incident occurred in the early morning hours of January 15, 2007. Reverend Davis remembers waking up just in time to see an enormous plume of flames billowing from Chevron's smokestacks. The refinery is part of the view from the third-floor apartment where he lives. It wasn't so much the fire itself that concerned him — he had seen plenty of fire spewing from the stacks on a nightly basis — but he had never seen one of that magnitude before.

Reverend Davis turned on the television, but doesn't remember seeing any warning messages or hearing any "shelter-in-place" sirens. Shelter-in-place is a community warning system meant to inform neighbors to stay indoors and tape their windows shut after an incident that could have released dangerous toxins into the air. For the primarily non-white residents who live close to the refinery, the threat of shelter-in-place is just a fact of life, much like the frequent traces of rotten-egg stink in the air. It turned out that most residents didn't hear the shelter-in-place sirens, and were instead awoken by fire trucks or refinery sirens. Three months after the incident, investigations revealed that the fire was caused by aging pipes that were improperly installed more than twenty years ago. Although residents were concerned about the residual pollutants that could have been released into the air as a result of the accident, Contra Costa emergency responders determined that the amount was "insubstantial," and wouldn't harm human health.

There is also the flaring or burning and release of toxic gases from the refinery. In this 2008 report, Chevron says it uses the flares to "protect its equipment:"

Whitman indicated where she stands on environmental racism when she cited a recent Chevron court case as an example of one of our environmental laws that she claims needs reform. Whitman wants to reform the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), which Jerry Brown has used as another tool to fight climate change. It is also a tool to fight environmental racism.

In an opinion piece for the San Jose Mercury News, Whitman wrote that CEQA needs to be reformed because it "eats up time and money and discourages business expansion." As an example of what was wrong with CEQA, she cited "frivolous lawsuits" in one sentence that was followed in the next sentence with a reference to a recent court decision that "forced" Chevron to "stop the replacement of outdated refinery technology" that would have "lowered emissions." Whitman then stated that a judge halted the Chevron project, wondering how can we "justify this process" when 1,000 people lost their jobs?

The answer is that the CEQA process is justified because it saves lives and prevents or reduces destruction of environmental resources.

Time for a few facts.

(1)  Whitman apparently does not like CEQA because it gives both the public and government agencies the right to know the facts of a project.

A court stopped the Chevron project because Chevron violated the law by refusing to disclose what level of crude would be used at the upgraded refinery.  The court concluded that the environmental analysis for Chevron's project was deficient because it did not adequately disclose whether the project included "equipment changes that would facilitate the future processing of heavier crudes at the Refinery."

Moreover, conflicting information revealed during the CEQA process indicated that Chevron was lying.  An accurate description of the nature of a project is crucial to determining what might be the environmental impacts. Chevron claimed that the project would not allow the refinery to process heavier, lower-quality crude. However, the court noted that the project Chevron described under oath in a filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) "differs considerably from the EIR's project description." Chevron's SEC filing stated the "central purpose of the Project as enabling the processing of heavier (lower specific gravity) crude."  After Chevron lost in court, Attorney General Brown tried to negotiate a settlement, proposing a permit that included a crude cap provision to ensure that the refinery would not switch to a heavier crude. Chevron strongly opposed.

In short, Chevron wanted to obtain government approvals and permits for a project without disclosing what constituted that project. The heart of CEQA is an analysis of the significant impacts from any particular project, but those impacts cannot be determined without an accurate description of the project. This impact analysis covers so many issues that affect our quality of life and necessities of life, such as traffic gridlock, noise, pollution, impacts on fish and wildlife and their habitat; archaeological or historical resources, and water supplies. CEQA analysis is the tool to ensure that government decision makers and the public are informed about environmental impacts before a project can proceed. Questions, such as whether there are sufficient water supplies for a new apartment complex, must be resolved before a project can be approved.

(2)  Whitman might not like the fact that citizens have a right to participate in the CEQA process by providing comments that must be considered by decision makers.

In this case, Richmond's mayor submitted comments that the community located by this refinery already suffered from high rates of asthma, respiratory diseases and cancer. Apparently Chevron did not like hearing comments from the public either. After the city council started hearing public comments, Chevron whipped out some money to entice the city to rule in its favor. This is from the Court of Appeal opinion:  

The City Council heard public comment during a hearing beginning on July 15, 2008, and continuing into the early morning hours of July 17, 2008. On the first night of the hearing, Chevron presented the City with a “community benefits agreement,” which was a $ 61 million package to fund various civic improvements. In return, among other things, the City was obligated to create a fast track for additional future permitting for the Project, if it was approved.

On July 17, 2008, by a five-to-four vote, the necessary permits for the Project were approved by the City Council.

(3)  Whitman apparently does not like that CEQA requires information be disclosed to the public and that such disclosures can lead to lawsuits to force compliance with the law.

Whitman says "legitimate legal claims" should be made for violations of the law rather than those pesky "frivolous lawsuits" filed by individual citizens and environmental and social justice organizations based on the information disclosed in the CEQA approval process. These lawsuits are so "frivolous" that many a project has been delayed or stopped due to noncompliance with the law. Whitman wants to make it easier for corporations to obtain permits for projects while restricting the right to file lawsuits by "removing private right of action in some cases and requiring challengers to post a bond before their appeal can be heard in other cases."

(4)  Whitman wants to "reform" CEQA ostensibly because 1,000 construction jobs to upgrade a refinery were lost when Chevron failed to comply with our law.

As one editorial stated this year, "there may be only one thing more important than creating jobs: saving lives."

The environmental report for Chevron's project must be done again and approved by the city council. Unfortunately, "Chevron Pours $1 Million into Richmond Political Races" now in an "effort to elect or reelect three Richmond politicians who have been reliable Chevron votes over the years" – one is running for mayor and two are trying to retain city council seats.

The EcoJustice series discusses environmental  justice, and the disproportionate impacts of environmental degradation and the climate crisis  on communities around the world.

Almost four decades ago, the EPA was created partially in response to the public health problems caused in the United States by environmental conditions, which included unhealthy air, polluted rivers, unsafe drinking water and waste disposal.  Oftentimes, the answer, both here and abroad, has been to locate factories and other pollution-emitting facilities in poor, culturally diverse, or minority communities. EcoJustice demands equal rights for all persons to clean, healthy and
sustainable communities.

Please join EcoJustice on Monday evenings at 7 p.m. Pacific Time.

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Originally posted to Patriot Daily News Clearinghouse on Mon Nov 01, 2010 at 06:03 PM PDT.

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