Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Chevron Richmond issue: Dennis Roos is the real "little guy"

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On July 1st, Contra Costa Superior Court Judge Barbara Zuniga issued a decision that altered Richmond, California's economic course for the future. She ordered the oil giant to rewrite its environmental impact report (EIR) because of environmentalists' contention that the EIR was flawed and that a newly refurbished Richmond refinery would not produce lower carbon emissions than the current facility.

Her decision was hailed as a victory for "the little guy" by my friend San Francisco Chronicle Columnist Chip Johnson. But his column made me ask "Who's really the little guy, here?" So in a search for the answer to my query, I did some digging and found a person who represents the real "little guy": Dennis Roos. But before we meet Roos, a brief recap is in order.

Two Sides To A View

A year ago the Richmond City Council narrowly approved a development agreement allowing Chevron to refurbish the existing refinery. The contention with the approval, according to community activists, is that Chevron's working to use a "dirtier" yet cheaper to produce grade of crude oil. Chevron's claim was that the new process would result in cleaner air.

The approval set off a lawsuit filed against Chevron under the grounds that the refinery EIR did not meet California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) quidelines. The Judge agreed and handed down the ruling which called for construction of the new facility to stop until the problem with the EIR was solved.

I think what's forgotten by many is the current state of the refinery. It's old and dirty, right now, and needs to be upgraded which will not happen because of this tribal culture we live in. What the real problem is, frankly, is that every time there's a development project there's someone who crafts a reason to stop it mainly because they're jealous that someone has done something big. Think about it. My point is not to poo-poo environmental concerns, not at all, but to get at something I've noticed and now have to ask bluntly: why are all the activists poor and struggling and always working against an organization or person they view as wealthy? It's a common theme. Some of these activists don't want to work with organizations to improve anything; they'd rather just stop them cold. Period. But why can't they pay the rent, these guys?

Chevron's not the best neighbor in all of this either. As one who's worked in government, I can say the best companies work years to gain the community's trust and to make sure that the needs of the people are met when they don't need anything. From people I've talked to for background information, this was the Chevron of Richmond's past.

Chevron would contend they're working with the community now, and their Richmond plant website gives a good presentation of what they're doing and have done in that community. From the website one can gather the idea that Chevron has been a major and positive part of Richmond's culture, or has tried to be. Somehow this news isn't reaching the community activists, but perhaps they're not listening or reading it to begin with. Maybe Chevron should try Twitter?

What happened? Why is it, particularly in California, we have "sides" to an issue that consist of people who don't talk to each other? Moreover, it consists of people who just don't like to think at all; they'd rather toss insults or lawsuits than have an intelligent conversation that leads to a workable agreement. It's all so tribal this new culture - one side puts out its view, the other has a view and we in the middle have to figure it out - it's done nothing to improve our economy or quality of life, and it cost Dennis Roos his job. I'm frankly sick and tired of this dumbed-down culture we've allowed to form. Whatever caused it, it's time for a push-back.

The Activist Mayor of Richmond

Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin says the victory is a win for Richmond. But which Richmond? The people who need the jobs don't think it's a win at all and neither does the city's finance director Jim Goins, who said the ruling will "have an impact." (Hey, I guess Richmond's doing fine in this recession, huh? Someone needs to tell Mayor McLaughlin her city's unemployment rate is 10 percent and that the number of Richmond jobs has decreased 65 percent since 2007. Richmond's in trouble.

This is what I'm vexed about: the desire to "get a win" seems to have overruled any idea of "getting to yes" where both parties can agree and improve a community. Shame on Mayor McLaughlin for acting less like a leader and more like an activist. Mayor McLaughlin should talk to one of her own people about this so-called "victory": Richmond's Dennis Roos.

Dennis Roos is the little guy

Roos is a union electrician (with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers local 302 in Martinez, California) who grew up in Richmond and started working for Chevron there when he was in his 20s as a researcher of sorts. Then Roos took a series of jobs, building a reputation as an electrician who specializes in new facilities and remodeling (or what he calls an "inside wireman"), like the one Chevron had planned to build before Judge Zuniga handed down a questionable call. I talked to Roos about what happened and how it's effected him.

Roos explained that he'd already been released by Chevron and didn't know what he was going to do for income considering his normal obligations and the fact that he has two daughters: one in college and the other just graduated from high school. At any rate Roos said he was laid off, he thought prematurely, and without other job prospects forced to go on unemployment. "It's pretty detrimental to the economy (of Richmond and myself) and I'm reduced to what I call necessity spending." Roos recently bought a new home and as a result of that and the court action against Chevron, he's not in the best financial shape at all. (He's looking for work, so please contact me if you have any opening and I will relay that information to him.)

A terrible decision 

Judge Barbara Zuniga could have resolved this issue in a way that helped all parties. Rather than order a stoppage of work to solve the environmental impact report problems, Judge Zuniga should have ordered the formation of a group of community activists and environmentalists to work with Chevron and then install the project change orders necessary to make sure the refinery's production process was "cleaner" in its emissions release than before. This would have saved the 1,000 jobs that have been removed - and perhaps even the 3,000 total refinery jobs that are now in question as Chevron considers moving production south to El Segundo - and made sure Richmond got the $61 million in community benefits from Chevron it negotiated for, which by the way lead to more jobs. Instead, Judge Zuniga made a terrible worst case call that harmed Richmond, Chevron, and workers like Dennis Roos.