When Something's in the Air ... 

Refinery neighbors damn well want to know about it. Not just some of them, and not just in English.

Ever since a 1999 chemical explosion at the Chevron refinery sent hundreds of Richmond residents gasping to the emergency room, Torm Nompraseurt and other Laotian immigrants have struggled to establish a phone system to alert non-English-speaking residents of industrial disasters. The county already had such a system in place for English speakers, but many of the people who live closest to the refinery are immigrants — including thousands of Laotians. So when Contra Costa County finally launched a Lao-language pilot program last year, many in the community thought the problem had been solved. Yet on January 15, when the Chevron refinery caught fire in the early morning and spewed a plume of toxic smoke out over the bay, the only warning calls anyone in the Laotian community got came from Nompraseurt himself, who happened to be up early and was dialing like mad. "Stay in the house, don't go out, and make sure you tighten the doors and windows with a towel," he remembers telling his relatives and neighbors.

Early warning is a sensitive issue in West Contra Costa County, where during the last fifteen years, the refineries and chemical plants that ring the area, including Chevron, Tesoro, ConocoPhillips, Shell Oil, and General Chemical, have had 51 incidents that the county classifies as "major accidents." These have produced everything from black smoke and rotten egg smells to so-called "slurry mists," hundred-foot flames, plumes of coke dust, and showers of oil droplets. The public is advised to stay indoors with the windows cranked shut during any such event.

After the 1999 fire, the Laotian Organizing Project and its parent organization, the Oakland-based Asian Pacific Environmental Network, held meetings where neighbors traded concerns. "Hundreds of people told story after story about not knowing what was going on," APEN program director Mimi Ho recalled. Even though refineries like Chevron use warning sirens when accidents happen, residents don't always hear them. Additionally, since the county's phone warning calls are in English, as are alerts on TV and radio, many people can't understand them. The consensus from the house meetings was that Laotians wanted phone calls in their own language, not just in English.

Organizers pushed for a multilingual system, since many Richmond residents speak limited English. The county agreed to create a separate database in the existing system that would make calls in three of the 42 separate Laotian dialects, hoping to eventually also accommodate Spanish-speaking, Vietnamese, and Hmong residents. The project dragged on for years due to technical difficulties and money problems. Although it finally went online in 2006, last month's events demonstrate that it's still not perfect.

The January 15 fire would have been the first real-world test of the Lao-language system. Many members of the Laotian community expected a call because of their proximity to the Chevron refinery. However, the decision about which neighbors to warn that morning was actually based on the wind's direction. On the morning of the fire it was blowing toward the bay and the much wealthier — and whiter — Point Richmond area, to which 2,988 calls were made in English. None of the phone numbers in the Lao-language database were activated because the Laotian community was considered upwind of the fire. That floored the people who'd worked so hard for a warning system. "We think everyone in Richmond should be notified," Ho said.

Community organizers also are frustrated with how difficult it is to get into the database in the first place. Laotians must outfit their phones with special caller ID boxes, which the county provides for free, but the services come with a monthly phone company fee. You also have to sign up, instead of being automatically enrolled, which further depresses participation. Although Nompraseurt of the Laotian Organizing Project estimates there are about ten thousand Laotians in West Contra Costa County, there are only thirty to forty numbers in the database. So even had the system worked flawlessly, the vast majority of that community might still have gone unwarned.

Other notification measures weren't exactly failsafe, either. Due to technical problems, even the first English-language calls didn't go out until an hour and sixteen minutes after the fire started. Although the county's health department also issued warnings via the media and the Internet, these were also easy to miss, as well as tardy: The Emergency Alert System warning on television and the National Weather Service's "shelter in place" warnings went out nearly an hour after the fire started. It took the health department approximately ninety minutes to put a notice on its Web site. That's more than enough time for residents to have wandered outdoors and gotten a lungful of something nasty.

Chevron's first siren went off fifteen minutes after the fire started, but seventeen-year-old student Jackie Saephanh, the daughter of Laotian immigrants who lives with her parents and six siblings just a few blocks away, slept right through it. "I guess I was really dead asleep that morning," said Saephanh — it was, after all 5:00 a.m. on the no-school Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday. Her mom, Fahm Phanh, said she didn't hear the siren through the apartment's double-paned windows.

That's why Phanh, who ended up in the emergency room after the 1999 Chevron fire with an itchy rash, and who blames the refinery for her ongoing skin problems and food allergies, blithely left the house that morning to go fishing. She didn't know there was a fire until she drove past the smoke. Saephanh had no idea something was amiss until she started feeling queasy the next day. "I've been feeling sick after the spill," she said. "Nauseated. I feel like I want to throw up and then my head's been hurting a lot."

At a Point Richmond community meeting to discuss the fire, Dr. Wendel Brunner, the county's director of public health, told residents that cases of nausea, headaches, and irritated eyes and throats reported by local emergency rooms were most likely caused by the fire's odor, not exposure to toxins. He said that air samples taken during the fire indicated that the amount of benzene, a carcinogen, in the air was two parts per billion, within the area's normal background level of one to five parts per billion. Other, less dangerous chemicals were present in even lower amounts, he said. "I am quite confident we are not going to have long-term health impacts from this incident in this community," Brunner told the crowd, "but we were lucky the wind was blowing toward the bay."

Not everyone was buying it. Dr. Henry Clark, director of the West County Toxics Coalition, was greeted with loud applause when he took the mic to question why air quality didn't nosedive during a refinery fire. Brunner later conceded that benzene levels were probably higher directly downwind from the fire.

Air samples don't tell the whole story, because they identify only what happened to blow past a few fixed locations, Greg Karras, senior scientist with Communities for a Better Environment, pointed out in a subsequent interview. Smoke can easily waft above or between monitoring points, only to be inhaled by someone further downwind. Since airborne chemicals are a moving target, he said, everyone near a refinery accident should be warned promptly regardless of wind direction: "People shouldn't be kept in the dark about whether there's an incident because that reduces their ability to respond in time if and when the wind shifts."

At the community meeting, Lieutenant Jeff Hebel of the Emergency Services division of the county Sheriff's Department, readily agreed that his department's phone system did not perform well. "It is not a good day when the refinery is on fire," he deadpanned, admitting that in the resulting chaos, it had taken too long for officials to try activating the system, and worse, their first three attempts to do so were thwarted by software errors. The company that made the software hurriedly fixed the problem, Hebel said, but "by that time, twenty minutes had elapsed and that's twenty minutes too long." He said the next system upgrade should improve the Laotian-language calling function and the ease of activating the entire system.

Hebel said later that he was sympathetic to the frustration of Laotian community members who expected a call no matter what, and said his office is considering sending phone alerts to everyone within a "buffer zone" around an affected facility no matter which way the wind is blowing. He noted, however, that his office has been dinged in the past for issuing too many alerts when there was no immediate danger. "We're not going to please everybody on this one," he admits. "The best we can hope for is if we don't have any industrial accidents."

In Richmond, that's not likely. "This was a near miss," Karras noted. "But for Mother Nature it could have been very, very bad."

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