When federal and local investigators gathered at Richmond’s City Hall on Monday morning for a briefing on the recent Chevron refinery fire, resident after resident voiced anger at Chevron and the agencies responsible for oversight, and fear for their health.
Representatives from the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Board, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Bay Area Air Quality Management District gathered at Richmond City Hall to share information about their investigations into the August 6 refinery fire that sent roughly 9,000 residents to area emergency rooms. Chemical Safety Board representative Dan Tillema said smog-producing hydrocarbons were still leaking from the site three weeks after the incident. He noted that his agency had prioritized investigation of the Chevron incident largely because of its impact on the public. The agency’s team includes two investigators from the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill.
Residents lined up in the packed meeting room to ask questions and express their outrage at the lack of transparency and adequate safety measures, and at Chevron’s ongoing pollution of their community.
Several voiced frustration with the Air Quality District for its failure to adequately monitor pollution from the refinery—not just after the fire, but on a daily basis. Air District CEO Jack Broadbent explained that the air monitors they use are not designed to respond to incidents like the August 6 fire. Despite the fact that the agency failed to collect adequate air samples during the fire, he said that at least one regulated toxic, acrolein, was found in high levels. Acrolein is a potent irritant to the eyes, nose and throat. Broadbent added that the Air District’s own staff had “suffered impacts” after the fire and said his agency believes there are ongoing violations of air quality rules at Chevron. Environmental Protection Agency representative Daniel Meer said the EPA intends to prosecute Chevron to the full extent of the law if they find violations.
One resident asked why the Air District couldn’t set up more air monitors, and why they hadn’t been able to use a weather balloon or other technology to gauge the toxics during the fire, while thousands of residents were watching the plume of black smoke grow over their neighborhoods. Another resident wanted to know why comprehensive, live air monitoring information wasn’t available online for the community.
One woman who said she’d lived in Richmond for 25 years appealed to the federal agencies to intervene. “This community has been poisoned for a number of years,” she said. “We have an epidemic of cancer here. A lot of us are angry.” She asked whether Chevron could provide respirators to residents, and wondered whether the company has plans to reimburse local fire departments and first responders for the taxpayer funds spent dealing with the fire. She pointed out that the fire drained resources at local emergency rooms and hospitals, and wondered whether Chevron planned to cover those costs.
Other residents described food gardens and yards still covered in black residue weeks after the fire. Some noted that emergency sirens never went off during the incident, and said they recognized danger only when they saw the black cloud spewing from the facility. Again and again, they urged the investigators to help.
“What right has Chevron got to poison our food?” one longtime resident asked the investigators. “We have no recourse. You all are paid by our taxes. Please do something about this.”
Another called on the community members to put the pressure on the agencies to take action. “They’re not going to protect us unless we force them to,” she said.
City officials told the community that they would plan on holding several more meetings to keep residents informed as the investigations unfold.