Pollution, poverty, people of color: Chevron Richmond refinery fire

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Photo credit: AP
The fire on Monday night at the Chevron Richmond Refinery is an Environmental Justice issue, no question. This article, Pollution, Poverty, People of Color: The factory on the hill, published by Environmental Health Sciences, gives you facts as well as personal stories about how environmental issues have been affecting Richmond since long before this fire. Here are some excerpts:
While most coastal cities breathe ocean breezes mixed with traffic exhaust, people in north and central Richmond are exposed to a greater array of contaminants, many of them at higher concentrations. Included are benzene, mercury and other hazardous air pollutants that have been linked to cancer, reproductive problems and neurological effects. People can’t escape the fumes indoors, either. One study showed that some of the industrial pollutants are inside Richmond homes.

It's the triple whammy of race, poverty and environment converging nationwide to create communities near pollution sources where nobody else wants to live. Black leaders from the Civil Rights Movement called the phenomenon environmental racism, and beginning in the early 1980s, they documented the pattern at North Carolina's Warren County PCBs landfill, Louisiana's "Cancer Alley," Tennessee's Dickson County, Chicago's South Side, Houston's Sunnyside garbage dump and other places across the country.

About 56 percent of the nine million Americans who live in neighborhoods within three kilometers of large commercial hazardous waste facilities are people of color, according to a landmark, 2007 environmental justice report by the United Church of Christ. In California, it’s 81 percent. Poverty rates in these neighborhoods are 1.5 times higher than elsewhere.

Those numbers, however, reflect a miniscule portion of the threats faced by nonwhite and low-income families. Thousands of additional towns are near other major sources of pollution, including refineries, chemical plants, freeways and ports.

Richmond is one of these beleaguered towns, on the forefront of the nation's environmental justice struggle, waging a fight that began a century ago.

Nowhere else to go

In the San Francisco Bay Area, African Americans didn't move next to an oil refinery by chance.

Early black settlers came to California as part of a migration between 1890 and the 1920s, many following family and friends to emerging industry in the East Bay. They escaped Jim Crow traditions of the South, but "lived a tenuous existence on the outer edges of the city's industrial vision, trapped at the bottom of the economic and social hierarchy," according to Sacramento State University professor Shirley Ann Wilson Moore in her book, To Place Our Deeds.
During World War II, blacks again arrived mainly from southern states seeking jobs in shipbuilding plants built under government contract with industrialist Henry J. Kaiser. Henry Clark's father, Jimmy Clark of Little Rock, Ark., came seeking opportunity as the first town barber.

Richmond turned to segregated housing in the decade after its 1905 incorporation. When Kaiser got the war contract for shipbuilding in 1941, most of Richmond's African American population was concentrated in and around North Richmond. Early records describe North Richmond as bordering a garbage dump with few streetlights, scarce fire and police protection and unpaved streets turning to "muddy quagmires in the rain."

The Richmond Housing Authority, in 1941, was told by the federal government to provide low-cost housing to the shipyard workers who swelled Richmond to a city five times its earlier size. But by 1952, no African American had lived in any of Richmond's permanent low-rent housing. There was nothing in rentals or sales available to blacks in the central city.

Nonwhites were pushed to unincorporated North Richmond and other neighborhoods dominated by the refinery, chemical companies, highways, rail yards and ports.

"It was the only land available to them when they wanted to purchase property. People don't put themselves in harm's way intentionally," said Betty Reid Soskin, 93, who moved to the Bay Area with her family when she was eight. She lectures on the African American experience in World War II at the National Historical Park's Rosie the Riveter project in Richmond. “Real estate developers could determine where you lived. The local banker could determine who could get mortgages.”

"Social policy determines history," Soskin said. "We have developed sensitivities to environmental injustice, and those sensitivities did not exist during that time."

The pattern of neglect continues today, said the Rev. Kenneth Davis, who used to come to North Richmond from San Francisco in the 1970s to visit friends and blues clubs.

"It's like we're on an island,” Davis said. “No grocery store to get fresh fruits and vegetables and meat. The only things you can buy are drink and dope. There's nothing but old nasty rotten food on the shelves and plenty of beer, wine and whiskey.”

Davis, who moved to a senior apartment in North Richmond in 2006, said he can see the refinery from his third-floor window, and blames Chevron and other companies for his chronic cough since moving here. As a pastor, he wonders about the deeper effects of pollution and poverty. "I'm beginning to think there's a correlation between the toxic fumes that we're breathing and the violence that is so prevalent in our community."

Joining the African Americans are newcomers from Laos, Latin America and the Pacific Islands, again seeking refuge and opportunity here amongst the factories and freeways in North Richmond.
In light of this history, Strong Families Partner APEN responded yesterday:
We believe that Chevron's actions over the past years are immoral, irresponsible and typical given the paradigm they have known for 110 years. The earth's oil supply is decreasing and Chevron must, through any means necessary, wring out every cent of profit it can from the earth's last reserves - we do not agree with Chevron's world view that profit trumps safety.

To compound Chevron's lack of safety accountability in last night's refinery fire/explosion, the multi-lingual warning systems that APEN and our allies fought for and won, failed. Many residents reported not being properly notified and are now experiences dizziness, headaches and other symptoms of exposure to toxins. We want to document community experiences so we can assure that better systems can be in put into place in the future.
In the first SIX months of this year, Chevron made $13.7 BILLION in profits. Chevron has consistently chosen short-term profit over protection of residents. For decades, Richmond residents have advocated for Chevron to replace its old equipment as soon as possible. Chevron refused to simply update its unsafe equipment and instead attempted to deceive the community and EXPAND its facility in Richmond. The project was really about building the infrastructure to refine heavier and dirtier grades of crude oil. We think that Chevron will trot out the "refinery safety" Trojan horse once again. You, me, we can not allow them to do succeed.
A town meeting was held last night, to make sure that Chevron is held accountable for the unacceptable health risks they expose the Richmond community to. Chevron has accepted blame for the fire, and has now set up a claims process to cover medical and property costs suffered by residents. But we know that this is not enough. APEN and Communities for a Better Environment (CBE) have made three demands:
Chevron, we cannot afford to wait for the next catastrophic chemical disaster. This fire is just another example of the serious negative health impacts that Richmond residents bear from the Chevron refinery. Your Richmond Refinery is an unsafe plant that you need to fix now—and put our communities back to work with these three simple solutions:
  • We demand full public disclosure of the cause(s) and solutions to prevent another Richmond Refinery crude unit fire. This equipment was never a part of your still-pending refinery project and it must be fixed.
  • We demand that Chevron cover the community’s health costs associated with your August 6th fire, and pay for an operational warning system.
  • We demand that Chevron hire local workers to replace old, polluting, unsafe refinery equipment and repower the refinery with solar installed on-site and in the community—providing renewable energy jobs.

To take action, you can sign the petition on the Ella Baker Center's website.