Written by: Michael Katz, Senior Associate
Last night I joined more than 100 people in Richmond, California for a community meeting to talk about the August 6 Chevron oil refinery explosion that sent thousands of residents to local emergency rooms. At the meeting, residents of all ages and backgrounds shared their stories, and their outrage. They also offered ideas and solutions. Elected officials, including the mayor, shared their frustrations with Chevron’s lack of accountability, lack of transparency and disregard for the health of the community.
Resident after resident described seeing the ominous black plume rising over their community, and the fear they felt realizing there was another emergency at the refinery. It allegedly took two hours from the time that workers identified the gas leak for Chevron shut down the unit. By this time, the leak had ignited, sending what scientists at the event called a “toxic soup” of harmful air pollutants into Richmond and surrounding communities. The fire burned uncontrollably for hours.
This was not the first explosion or health emergency caused by the refinery. In response to past incidents, residents fought for and won a multi-lingual warning system. But when they needed it this time, the system proved inadequate. Many at the meeting reported never receiving a call warning them of the disaster. The calls are meant to warn residents to “shelter in place”- stay where they are, shut all doors and windows, cover any gaps where air could flow in, and don’t try to leave.
This state of fear is a part of life in Richmond, and health problems from pollution are a daily reality. Residents suffer from disproportionate asthma, cancer rates and shortened life expectancy relative to the rest of the region—all connected to long-term exposure to toxics released regularly by the refinery. The most recent explosion is just a reminder of the danger that the oil refinery poses. At last night’s meeting , the lead scientist from Communities for a Better Environment detailed how the refinery has been processing dirtier and dirtier crude, which contains higher concentrations of sulfur and has been shown to corrode pipes. Chevron’s own records show they recently had to replace corroded pipes next to the one that exploded.
And then there are the stories. Doria Robinson runs Urban Tilth, a community gardening program for youth. On a shoestring budget, she’s managed to install gardens in a dozen of the city’s elementary, middle and high schools, involving hundreds of youth in growing food, nutrition education, cooking with healthy food and even starting a business selling their organically grown produce to residents. This past summer she employed 50 youth to maintain and expand their gardens. They were getting ready to harvest the fruits of their labor for a final celebration when the refinery exploded. While the toxic cloud was carried to higher altitudes because of wind patterns that day, toxic residues have been settling on outdoor surfaces, including Urban Tilth’s. “We serve kindergarteners,” she said at the meeting, “and now I wonder, for the first time, if our food is safe.”
Courtney Cummings who runs the Native American Health Center, has lived through three explosions at the refinery. She has breathing difficulties she blames on the refinery. “There are particles in my lungs,” she explained. “They won’t leave."
So far, 14,000 residents have gone to the hospital for treatment related to the refinery fire, including itchy skin, burning eyes, and difficulty breathing.
Attendees offered a host of solutions to prevent future emergencies, ensure greater transparency, and get Chevron to be a more responsible neighbor. “Sheltering in place is not enough. These toxics remain in the environment and contaminate us,” warned one resident, Denny Larson.
Two years ago, the city of Richmond filed a suit against Chevron, claiming they were not paying their fair share of taxes. In the settlement, Chevron agreed to install state-of-the-art air quality monitoring systems in exchange for tax breaks. In spite of these tax breaks—and Chevron’s record profits—the company has yet to hold up their end of the bargain. As a result, reliable information about the toxic contents emitted during the explosion—and everyday—is unavailable. At the meeting, residents demanded to know what they are breathing, and why Chevron is dragging its feet. “The technology exists but they aren’t implementing it,” City Council member Jovanka Beckles noted.
Mayor Gayle McLaughlin shared a list of outcomes she wants to see. She wants the company to install the highest safety precautions—including automatic shut down of operations as soon as any leak is detected. She called for state-of-the-art monitoring and demanded that Chevron be accountable to the community.
Residents echoed these solutions. They pointed out that safety upgrades put local residents to work. They called on Chevron to install solar panels, in keeping with the city’s efforts to expand renewable energy. Over and over, speakers demanded more transparency and more accountability. Chevron’s record profits are no secret and Richmond residents want to know why Chevron can’t afford to be concerned about their health.
Community leaders are continuing to fight for better safety and accountability. They have secured a meeting with the regional air quality district, county toxic department, CalOSHA, and the regional EPA to start a dialogue with official agencies about how they can work together to prevent future disasters and protect the people living in the shadow of the refinery.