According to Ed-Data figures for 2017-18, approximately 89 percent of students at McDowell Elementary are Hispanic or Latino. In all, 92 percent of the student population identifies as a racial minority.

Several commenters at this week’s council hearing called on officials to act on behalf of the Latino youth that might be disproportionately exposed to carcinogenic emissions like benzene.

Petaluma resident Brent Newell, a public interest and environmental attorney, said the council had the power to authorize a “disparate impact analysis” as an agency that receives federal funding. The regulation is designed to avoid discrimination under civil rights law.

“You have a duty under the law to make sure your decision does not disparately impact the students there at McDowell Elementary School,” Newell said to the council.

The project was first proposed in 2013, pitched as an alternative to Petaluma’s high costs for gas, and has been embraced by residents that want a cheaper option. The gas station would include a 697-square-foot convenience store, one electric vehicle charging station and upgrades to the nearby bus station.

After the site plans and environmental mitigations were initially approved by the planning commission last summer, the decision was appealed by McEachin and No Gas Here, forcing the city council to weigh in.

Over the last six months, the council has delayed discussions on the gas station twice due to last-minute document dumps that overwhelmed city staff with conflicting analyses just before a scheduled hearing.

“Value Children Over Profits.”

On Dec. 3, Petaluma’s elected officials used their authority under the California Environmental Quality Act and a precedent set by a recent case, Protect Niles v. City of Fremont, to vote unanimously to require an EIR. The comprehensive third-party review of the environmental dangers and possible mitigations for the gas station would have cost Safeway time and money in order to get the project cleared — unless significant impacts were discovered.

Nearly a month later, Safeway accused Petaluma officials of violating a public meeting law, claiming that the city failed to provide enough notice of its last-minute staff recommendation for an EIR, and that several documents were not disclosed.

City officials denied any wrongdoing, but took the cautious approach and held a redo hearing to correct the Brown Act violations on Jan. 28.

For months, much of the focus has been the council’s authority at this stage of the process. Francois has recently leaned on a new legal precedent, McCorkle Eastside Neighborhood Group v. City of St. Helena, which determined St. Helena officials didn’t have the authority to require an EIR under CEQA. Instead, their scope was limited solely to design and aesthetics.

Since Petaluma’s zoning code allows a gas station at the site, and all the necessary agencies OK’d Safeway’s studies and mitigations before the planning commission’s approval, Francois has claimed the council has no legal authority to order an EIR under the McCorkle case.

“Safeway is not looking to get out of environmental review – it’s done it (already),” he said on Monday. “It did it for the last six years. It did 16 studies, all of which prove the impacts are less than significant. … Safeway is not turning its back on the mitigation measures or any of the 65 conditions of approval imposed by the planning commission.”