Richmond, Calif. has two suits pending against its biggest employer, Chevron.Chevron, which operates a large refinery in Richmond, faces two lawsuits by the city, one for climate liability, the other for negligence. Photo credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

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By Amy Westervelt

When the city of Richmond, Calif. filed its lawsuit against the country’s top fossil fuel companies in an attempt to hold them liable for the impacts of climate change and the cost of addressing them, it joined eight other communities in a recent wave of such lawsuits. But unlike the others, Richmond has been on the front lines of fighting fossil fuel emissions for decades.

One of the companies Richmond sued is Chevron, one of its largest employers. Chevron’s 2,900-acre waterfront refinery contributes about one-third of Richmond’s $134 million general fund budget via direct tax payments. But the refinery has also imposed some heavy costs, via air pollution and related health impacts. Richmond is also the first climate liability plaintiff to have another suit pending against a fossil fuel company at the same time.

In 2012, a leaky crude-oil pipeline sparked a fire at the refinery that sent more than 15,000 people, including both employees and those in the surrounding area, to the hospital for treatment. In the aftermath of the fire, the state division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) found the refinery guilty of 11 “willful” violations and fined it about $1 million, the highest fine in the agency’s history. The U.S. Chemical Safety Board’s investigation found that the pipe was recommended for replacement by Chevron inspectors as early as 2002.

In 2013, the California Air Resources Board added $190,000 to the company’s fine, for air pollution violations leading up to the 2012 fire (violations reported between 2010-12). The following week, after several months of negotiations came to an impasse, the city of Richmond sued Chevron for the first time, seeking compensation for 50 years of economic and public health impacts.

The complaint holds Chevron accountable for negligence, liability, and public nuisance, and covers three areas of damage: economic losses, environmental harm and interference with residents’ rights to the “comfort and enjoyment” of their community. The economic losses encompass the amount the city spent providing emergency response to the fire and monitoring air quality, as well as the cost of the reputational damage done to the city over years of highly publicized pollution and accidents at the refinery. Chevron’s continual attempts to get the case thrown out have failed and it goes to trial on February 26.

“I’m glad to see the city of Richmond taking some proactive steps in this regard,” said Henry Clark, head of the nonprofit West County Toxics Coalition. “Because I know Richmond hasn’t traditionally been very progressive when dealing with environmental issues.”

The negligence suit specifically holds Chevron—as opposed to the entire fossil fuel industry—accountable for its direct impacts on the community. The city is being represented by Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy, the same firm that took Pacific Gas & Electric to court over its gas line explosion in San Bruno in 2010. It also represents shareholders impacted by the company’s negligence who were awarded $90 million in 2017. “They’ve been pretty effective at holding companies accountable for this kind of stuff, so I have a lot more optimism for that case,” said Andres De Soto, Richmond community coordinator for the environment nonprofit Communities for a Better California, who added the liability suit’s longer time frame means less hope for immediate relief.

“The climate change lawsuit seems to be in court more for political purposes, it’s like the tobacco stuff where they knowingly covered up fact that cigarettes were harmful. I think it’s good to shine a light on the duplicity and greed of the industry, but in terms of really impacting the community at the ground level? We won’t really see that until and unless the case goes to court and the city wins big money.”

Filing not one, but two, lawsuits against one of its primary employers is a bold move for the working-class city of Richmond. In a 2014 report by Beacon Economics, commissioned by Chevron, economists estimated that Chevron supports more than 2,200 full-time equivalent jobs in Richmond, generating more than $370 million in economic activity and more than $120 million in wages and earnings. That money helps the city support a larger police force than it could otherwise afford and has also been used to bolster code enforcement and crime-intervention programs that some credit with reducing the crime rate in the city. “One of the reasons we’ve had success in reducing crime is we have a funding base that allows for good staffing levels,” police chief Chris Magnus told The Mercury News when the Beacon report came out. “It’s just a fact that Chevron is a big part of that funding base.”

The Richmond Chamber of Commerce has often expressed concern that the suits will prompt Chevron to just leave the city. Henry Clark, who has been pushing for Chevron to curb its emissions since the 1980s through his nonprofit, the West County Toxics Coalition, waves that concern away. “Over the years they’ve made threats to leave Richmond but that never materialized,” he said.

Chevron also made headlines in 2014 for its proposed $1 billion modernization project, which would update the refinery’s processing equipment and limit its greenhouse gas emissions. The project was initially proposed in 2006, but a consortium of environmental groups sued the city and the refinery in 2008 to block it, claiming the project would actually increase emissions. The company returned in 2014 with a scaled-back proposal and an agreement to cap emissions to 2014 levels and reduce the amount of so-called “bunker fuel,” the high-sulfur fuel typically used by ships that is processed at the refinery. That proposal was approved by the city and the project broke ground in 2016.

“I’ve actually been taking some heat from local groups for supporting the modernization project,” said Clark. “But I think they did the right thing there and came up with a project that limits greenhouse gas emissions. To be fair and honest, I support that because we’ve been encouraging them to be a good neighbor.”

Still, Clark said he’s happy to see the city trying to hold Chevron accountable for past impacts, via both the refinery fire suit and the recently filed climate liability complaint.

As the refinery fire suit gets underway, other municipalities will be watching to see whether and how the outcome of that suit impacts the climate liability case.