The Battle for Environmental Justice Continues 4 Years After Richmond Refinery Explosion

By Yessenia Funes Aug 05, 2016

Tomorrow (Aug. 6) marks four years since the explosion at the Chevron Refinery in Richmond, California, a workplace catastrophe in which 19 employees barely escaped to safety. In the weeks following the explosion, approximately 15,000 people in the community—which is 39.5 percent Latinx, 26.6 percent Black and 13.5 percent Asian—sought medical treatment for breathing problems, chest pains, shortness of breath, sore throats and headaches. One year later, the city filed a lawsuit against Chevron claiming the company put profits and executive pay over people’s safety. 

Since then, not much has changed. The suit remains unsettled. Environmentalists claim air quality and health problems are an ongoing issue. And, perhaps most tellingly, Chevron is still operating in the community—and it is expanding so it can process potentially dirtier crude oil.  

Torm Nompraseurt has lived in Richmond for over 40 years. He left Laos during the Vietnam War, seeking asylum as a refugee in the United States. Chevron operations don’t seem much better to him now than they did when he first settled in Richmond. “It probably will get worse because of the crude oil that they’re [going to] refine from tar sands,” he says.

Nompraseurt is also an organizer with the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, an organization that advocates on behalf of Asian and Pacific Islander communities in the Bay Area. The group is currently focused on the $1 billion plan that the Richmond City Council passed in 2014 to upgrade the century-old Chevron facility. This upgrade would allow the refinery to process crude oil blends “with relatively high levels of sulfur”— like those found in the controversial tar sands of Alberta, Canada. This would increase the refinery’s emissions as it is a dirtier fossil fuel, though a Chevron spokesperson said the refinery has no plans of refining tar sands. The EPA has noted that such facilities tend to emit more toxic pollutants “that are known or suspected to cause cancer, birth defects and seriously impact the environment” than they actually report.

As the community battles these proposed plans, they are also contending with a current threat. The rate of avoidable asthma hospitalization for younger adults who are Black in Richmond was 4.4 per 10,000 between 2009 and 2011, according to the county health department’s latest available data. That is more than four times the rate for White people. Still, the city sees more asthma hospitalizations than Contra Costa County overall—regardless of race. For Richmond residents, these elevated numbers are especially troublesome because the city’s public hospital shut down last year due to financial struggles. The nearest one (the Martinez Health Center) is nearly 20 miles away.

Community organizers have been working on a campaign against Chevron for four years, says Andrés Soto, an organizer with environmental justice organization Communities for a Better Environment (CBE). Says Soto: "{{pullquote}}They are the primary boogeymen of environmental injustice in Richmond.{{/pullquote}} They’re certainly not the only ones, but they’re the biggest ones.” Consequently, environmentalists are demanding a cap on Chevron’s—and the four other surrounding refinery’s—greenhouse gas emissions. This cap would also curb the toxic contaminants that refineries emit alongside carbon—including particulate mattervolatile organic compounds and sulfur dioxide.

Bay Area Air Quality Management District, a public regional air pollution control agency, is developing rule language that would incorporate the community proposal alongside a similar staff proposal. “There will be separate rules with a single environmental impact report that would outline what each would be capable of doing,” says Eric Stevenson, the district’s director of technical services. The rule, which will impact refinery emissions, should be ready for a vote in May 2017.



The Bay Area Air Quality Management District has passed other rules since the explosion: three in December 2015 to limit emissions from particulate matter and organic compounds, as well as two in April 2016 that require the five Bay Area oil refineries to limit sulfur dioxide emissions and track emissions. Stevenson says that this monitoring system is “unique” and more comprehensive than anything that’s currently out there. Because of these rules, Chevron will have to begin disclosing information to the public about its toxin emissions. This will help regulators find out whether local environmentalists are right in saying that the refining of tar sands oil will make residents sicker.

“We’re taking [community concerns] very seriously,” Stevenson says. Still, the director claims the Bay Area’s air quality is “some of the best in the nation for urban areas.” But particulate matter levels in the San Pablo area, which is adjacent to Richmond, frequently exceed federal health standards, according to the district’s data. This is the first year since 2013 that levels have remained below 35.5 micrograms—the cutoff number for what is federally acceptable. Says Richmond Mayor Tom Butt: "Well, the good news is everything is pretty quiet. We haven’t had any major problems since the fire."

Maybe things have improved. But with that sliver of change has come the onslaught of gentrification. UC Berkeley is already looking at Richmond for its planned Global Campus project. In addition, the city is voting on a rent control measure in November. Some residents, like Soto of CBE, are concerned. “The wave of gentrification spread out from San Francisco to Oakland and Berkeley, and now it is in Richmond,” Soto says. “There’s pressure on rent and housing costs going up and making it less affordable.”

And so another fight ensues.