Chevron puts Richmond at risk

September 11, 2012

David McCarthy reports on a Chevron refinery fire that Richmond, Calif., residents say is part of a pattern of health and safety violations by the company.

A FIRE last month at a Chevron refinery in Richmond, Calif., has sparked anger over what residents say is the company's ongoing disregard for the health and safety of the community.

The fire, which began at 6:15 p.m. on August 6 at the refinery's Number 4 crude unit, lasted for five hours and sent plumes of smoke up to 4,000 feet into the air, releasing thousands of pounds of chemicals into the air over Richmond and other cities in the East San Francisco Bay Area. Bus lines in Richmond were shut down, and three stations of the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) train system were closed.

An automated phone warning went out to 20,000 Richmond residents within proximity of the refinery to stay in their homes, close windows and seal them with duct tape. Some 160,000 people live within areas directly affected by the fire and toxic release. There were no fatalities among refinery workers or residents, but 5,700 people were reported to have sought medical attention for eye irritation and respiratory ailments.

Smoke billows from the fire at a Chevron refinery in Richmond
Smoke billows from the fire at a Chevron refinery in Richmond (Alex Tafla)

THE FIRE is the latest disaster from a refinery that is known for flagrant disregard of health and environmental safety. This is the third major accident at the refinery within the last 12 years.

The first happened in 1999, when an 18,000-pound plume of sulfur dioxide smoke was released after an explosion from a leak in a decades-old pipe. The second occurred in January 2007, when a corroded pipe caused an explosion starting a fire. The latest fire, which occurred in the refinery's Number 4 crude unit, is being attributed to a leak in aging piping that ignited.

All three cases have been attributed to old equipment. Beyond these three major accidents, there have been several other, smaller fires, as well as chemical releases since 1999 as well.

The latest fire has brought community anger against Chevron back to the forefront of Richmond politics. Not only was it another major environmental catastrophe caused by Chevron's neglect in maintaining the refinery, but it is symptomatic of the broader health risks plaguing Richmond because of Chevron's disregard for safety.

The warning systems in place to make automated calls were supposed to go out to residents right away--they didn't happen until three hours after the fire started. There is also a system of sirens that are supposed to be sounded by the refinery in the event of an accident. But residents say many of the sirens didn't go off until hours after the fire. A few sirens apparently never went off at all, and some residents only learned of the fire when they saw the pillars of smoke or heard from friends or family.

Union safety experts expressed concern about the company's safety protocols. Chevron officials reportedly knew there was a leak two hours before the fire started, but they didn't shut down the unit. The refinery was only shut down and evacuated when the leak began to drastically worsen.

Chevron's record doesn't stop at industrial accidents. Since April 2009, the refinery has been in noncompliance with the Clean Water Act and National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System. It has also been in "high-priority violation" of Clean Air Act standards since 2010. It has had nearly a 100 citations since 2007 and paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines.

The fire inflamed already bitter opinions in a city that has three times the national rates for asthma, and where one-third of children can be expected to at some point go to the hospital for respiratory problems. Richmond also has significantly higher rates for cancer and other chronic diseases. Of the people living within three miles of the refinery, up to 85 percent live under the federal poverty line and a similar percentage are minorities.

AFTER THE fire, a town hall meeting drew 500 residents to the Richmond Memorial Auditorium, where they confronted Chevron representatives and Contra Costa County public health officials.

Angry residents grilled refinery managers and county authorities over what chemicals were released and why the warning and safety measures failed. The audience also lambasted the company for its role in ruining Richmond's health and environment, with people shouting, "Liars!" whenever Chevron representatives spoke. Many people held signs reading "How many more accidents?" and "Chevron out of Richmond."

At least nine residents, including three children, are currently part of a lawsuit against Chevron, and are represented by Oakland civil rights attorney John Burris. Burris' office has also indicated that a class-action suit against the company is likely, saying that over 1,000 people have contacted the office regarding legal recourse against the oil company. Many more have directly contacted Chevron themselves to lodge complaints.

On September 3, some 60 people participated in a march and rally to the Chevron refinery. The rally, the first street protest since the fire, was organized by United Public Workers for Action, with endorsements from the Peace and Freedom Party, Healthy Richmond, and the Law Offices of John L Burris.

The rally started with speeches from various local activists, organizations and members of the faith community. Many of the speakers called for varying demands from making Chevron pay for a public hospital in Richmond to the nationalization of the oil industry.

Speakers also decried the lack of OSHA regulations and inspections of refineries that could have potentially prevented the accident. Some speakers also noted that more worker authority or control over refinery operations could have minimized or prevented the fire by allowing them to shut down the refinery to fix the problem instead of keeping operations going while trying to fix the leak "on the fly." Marchers chanted "Stop poisoning the community--make Chevron pay," as they rallied outside the refinery gates.

Given the resources Chevron has (profits in 2011 were $27 billion) and its political clout in Richmond and California generally, much more organizing will be needed if the oil giant is going to be brought to any level of accountability. The 500 who came out to the town hall meeting show that there are many people in the city who are angry and want to do something about Chevron's abuses.

In the coming months, activists will need to work harder in reaching out to residents to come out into the streets and to organize and to join together with Chevron workers to fight for a Richmond where people can raise children without fear of them being poisoned because of Chevron's greed.

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