Big Oil in Little Richmond 

Whose interests will the city council serve as it considers Chevron's latest upgrade proposal?

Page 2 of 5

Yet a consultant hired by the city of Richmond, Ranajit Sahu, insists that Chevron is telling the truth about its plans. Based on his research, which includes access to materials not released to the public or company critics, Sahu said Chevron has taken all necessary precautions to prevent any significant increase in pollution. "Yes, Chevron would like to refine heavier crudes than they are processing now," Sahu said. "But they will still keep them in the light-to-medium crude range."

At a highly charged June 5 meeting of the city's planning commission, Chevron's Chamberlin tried to quell the many suspicions about the company's intentions. "I want to be very clear that there is no conspiracy or hidden plan by Chevron to process heavy crude at the Richmond refinery," he said. "We plan to run the same types of crudes that we have been running," he said. Chamberlin insisted that Chevron would need to come back before the city for permission to refine the heaviest and most contaminated crude oil.

Those who weren't convinced by Chamberlin's assurances were even less convinced when he pointed to data indicating that Richmond's air quality represents some of the best in the Bay Area. "The bottom line is that Richmond has very good air quality and it will continue to get better," he said. The comment drew jeers from the crowd, and the row of suited Chevron representatives sitting behind Chamberlin — none of whom live in Richmond — shifted nervously in their seats.

Chevron's claims about Richmond's air quality didn't impress Reverend Kenneth Davis, who lives in a 52-unit apartment complex for seniors in the heart of North Richmond, an unincorporated area surrounded by the city. This neighborhood is one of the most poverty-stricken and crime-ridden in Contra Costa County, and also happens to be one of the closest to the refinery's sputtering smokestacks, labyrinthine pipelines, and sand-colored tanks. "How in the world can anyone say that we have the best air here?" he asked. "All they need to do is come and spend a few days with me. These lawyers come in there and have nerve enough to dictate my health. It just makes me angry."

Reverend Davis wasn't up in arms about Chevron until he moved to North Richmond in 2006. "I moved here out of necessity, because it was the only place I could afford to live," he said. "I didn't even think about the fact of how close we are to Chevron." Since then, however, he said that he and other visitors to a local senior center have developed severe respiratory problems. But can he prove that the emissions from the Chevron refinery caused those problems? Not really.

A 2007 report issued by Contra Costa County Health Services shows that Richmond has significantly higher rates of cancer and asthma hospitalizations than any other city in the county. And although many of the pollutants emitted by refineries are known to cause respiratory problems, there's not enough data to conclusively point any fingers. According to the West County Toxics Coalition, Contra Costa County also has the highest concentration of industrial facilities in the state, making it difficult to blame bad air quality on Chevron alone.

"In industrial settings, environmental health is a really tough one to show cause and effect with," said Chuck McKetney, a health expert from Contra Costa County Health Services who helped put together the 2007 report. Causation also is difficult to prove because respiratory illness is an especially complex disease, he said. And there are too many variables involved to generate really accurate conclusions. For example, Reverend Davis may be inhaling bad air from the refinery, but he also smokes on occasion, which could be another reason he can't go five minutes without coughing.

However, Chevron certainly can be held accountable for its history of accidents. "When you have fires and explosions in places where people already have respiratory problems, that's a problem," McKetney said. Chevron's Richmond facilities have seen four major accidents since the chemical explosion in 1999 that released an 18,000-pound cloud of sulfur dioxide into the air and sent hundreds to the hospital. The refinery's most recent incident occurred in the early morning hours of January 15, 2007. Reverend Davis remembers waking up just in time to see an enormous plume of flames billowing from Chevron's smokestacks. The refinery is part of the view from the third-floor apartment where he lives. It wasn't so much the fire itself that concerned him — he had seen plenty of fire spewing from the stacks on a nightly basis — but he had never seen one of that magnitude before.

Reverend Davis turned on the television, but doesn't remember seeing any warning messages or hearing any "shelter-in-place" sirens. Shelter-in-place is a community warning system meant to inform neighbors to stay indoors and tape their windows shut after an incident that could have released dangerous toxins into the air. For the primarily non-white residents who live close to the refinery, the threat of shelter-in-place is just a fact of life, much like the frequent traces of rotten-egg stink in the air. It turned out that most residents didn't hear the shelter-in-place sirens, and were instead awoken by fire trucks or refinery sirens. Three months after the incident, investigations revealed that the fire was caused by aging pipes that were improperly installed more than twenty years ago. Although residents were concerned about the residual pollutants that could have been released into the air as a result of the accident, Contra Costa emergency responders determined that the amount was "insubstantial," and wouldn't harm human health.


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