Written by: Kaori Tsukada, Program Associate
At a community meeting in Richmond on Monday, residents packed the room to voice their concerns about pollution from the nearby Chevron oil refinery and the massive fire on August 6 that sent 15,000 residents to seek medical treatment.
Even before the meeting began, a stack of comment cards handed out by city staff grew into a sizable pile, and continued to grow throughout the evening.
For an hour, regulator after regulator, investigator after investigator from Contra Costa County, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, the Contra Costa County Office of the Sheriff, and Contra Costa Health Services outlined their jurisdictions and stressed that they are focusing their efforts on investigating the fire. Each one repeated that they have been a constant presence on the scene, and that they will remain so until they find the truth.
After presentations from investigating agencies, Chevron’s representative stood up to give an update on what the company has been working on to address problems that arose during the fire. She promised community members that the company is working with transit authorities to ensure that if there is another disaster in the future, transit will be available even if BART shuts down, and an evacuation scheme will be in place for emergencies. She showed a map marked with three spots where Chevron plans to install more air quality monitors within the city. She claimed Chevron is looking to invest more into the community and businesses in Richmond, and add programs that would bring economic development to the city.
However, residents have lost faith in Chevron’s ability to keep its promises. Chevron’s statement that it is committed to the health of the residents and of the environment was met with laughter, booing, and calls of “another professional liar!” and “shame on Chevron!”
When the floor opened for questions, residents aired more concerns. “But what are you going to do now?” began a local reverend. “I can smell that filth. It’s in our air. How long can we hold our breath?”
Another longtime resident wanted to know how she and her neighbors could get medical care. “My throat is rough and I’ve had a dry hacking cough ever since the fire. I know a lot of other people with the same thing. Where can we go?”
The meeting’s facilitator couldn’t even make it through the large yellow stack of comment cards, nor could the table of inspectors, supervisors, and representatives answer all the questions posed by the long line of people awaiting their turn to speak. Too many questions could not be answered and were tabled so that they could be addressed later and made available publicly.
More than anything, community members at the meeting demanded accountability.
“Who’s going to be responsible for the deposits that are killing us?” one resident asked.
Monday’s meeting came on the heels of new reports showing that Chevron is under criminal investigation by the Environmental Protection Agency for skirting air quality regulations. While the investigation is not related to the August 6 fire, it raises serious questions about Chevron’s honesty and transparency in sharing information about dangerous air pollutants with the people who live near the refinery.