How Long Can We Hold Our Breath?

15 August 2012

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By Christine Batten, CFJC Policy and Outreach Intern

On Monday evening approximately 6:15 pm, Chevron’s crude distillation unit No. 4 caught fire in Richmond, California. The fire burned for hours before many residents were informed, before action was taken for the sake of public health. A plume of smoke rose into the air, hovering above the refinery and then dispersing throughout Richmond and nearby towns. Over 1,000 individuals sought medical treatment, primarily for respiratory issues, as well as skin and eye irritation. Now angered residents are demanding an explanation for the incident, and seeking reparations from Chevron.

Richmond, CA is an impoverished city predominated by people of color—82.9% of Richmond residents are Latino, African American, or Asian. The exception is in the Richmond Hills, where the population is much wealthier and much more white, an area segregated from the refinery and from the poorer residents. In an interview on Democracy Now! Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin recognizes the many social and economic injustices suffered by Richmond residents overtime, as well as the notable environmental injustices. These in large part can be attributed to Chevron refinery, as well as the four other oil refineries in the surrounding area, three chemical companies, toxic waste sites, the highways, and the rail yards.

Media coverage and preliminary reports have barely touched on the potential health implications for plants, food, and animals in the area. A population already compromised with health issues was just exposed to smoke from a refinery. Residents here experience much higher rates of repiratory issues like asthma. For example, in 2009 asthma rates were two-and-a-half times higher there (per 10,000 residents) than the entire state of California. Greg Karras, a senior scientist at Oakland-based Communities for a Better Environment, remarked on the health concerns many individuals experienced after the fire, stating, “people are experiencing headaches, weeping, trouble sleeping, and those are consistent with sulfur compounds and hydrocarbons.” Considering the stark number of people visiting the hospital complaining of symptoms consistent with that of toxic emission exposure, it seems odd that 22 out of 23 known toxic air contaminants were at normal background levels. How could this be? Maybe it’s a sign that the monitoring system needs some updating. Only two of the eight air-quality monitoring stations from the Air Quality Management District are in Richmond, with a total of zero at the refinery itself. Still—albeit a minimized or absent fact in media reports—one contaminant did test very high: acrolein. Acrolein is known to cause eye, skin, and respiratory irritation, and in very high doses can lead to death.

Apparently more tests need to be done for air quality, as well as soil quality. Urban Tilth—a Richmond-based urban agriculture institute that partners with schools, businesses, and local organizations to minimize food scarcity—raised serious concerns about the effects of the fire on their harvest relating to smoke and particulate damage. Before Chevron’s press conference Tuesday evening, about two-dozen protesters demanded that Chevron be held accountable. Executive Director of Urban Tilth, Doria Robinson, fears the entire harvest may need discarding. During the protest many plants that incurred damages from the smoke were publically discarded—a message to Chevron expressing the organization’s discontent. “We MUST have responsible and accountable corporate neighbors,” Robinson said.

Although advisories were sent to the less-impacted, wealthier communities (i.e. the Oakland Hills), the poorer residents nearest to the blast—the ones more affected—experienced massive delays in emergency broadcasting. That is, if they were informed at all. The fire began around 6:15 pm, however sirens and emergency phone calls were delayed until 9:30 pm. Some sirens didn’t even sound at all. That’s a three-hour delay between crisis and response. That’s three hours where smoke and toxins could permeate throughout people’s homes. Then, well after the fire could compromise indoor air quality, residents are advised to shut windows and doors and close off cracks—to protect themselves from toxins by sealing themselves inside of a potential toxic stew. Is this the best we can do for our communities? Reverend Kenneth Davis of North Richmond Baptist Church said on Tuesday night, “You talk about shelter in place, but how long can I hold my breath…What about our dogs, our cats, our chickens, our horses and what about our children?”

Richmond needs more answers. People need more than a promise of sparse reparations, and they need more than a Chevron spokesperson releasing an apologetic statement marked by indifference: “[We are] very disappointed that this happened, and apologize that we are inconveniencing our neighbors”.

So how long can we hold our breath, waiting in vain for the fulfillment of vague environmental promises from a corporate giant that downplays a public health disaster into a mere “inconvenience”? Environmental injustice and environmental racism is not merely inconvenient, it is egregious.

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