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August 09, 2012

Shelter in Place

For thousands of people in the San Francisco Bay Area communities of Richmond, North Richmond, San Pablo, and El Cerrito, last Monday was a night of terror.

Explosions and a massive fire shook Chevron's giant refinery in Richmond starting around 6:15 p.m. Our own Jessica Meskus, the associate art director of Sierra magazine, lives about four miles from the refinery and got home at about 6:30:

I heard the sirens go off. It happens every once in a while. I've lived there three years. When it happens, you close your doors and windows, and you wait for someone to tell you what's going on. So I went outside to get Wilma, my tortoise, from the backyard and make sure my dogs Lex, Leela, and Moose were inside. As I bent down to pick up Wilma, I heard the second explosion and saw a huge plume of black smoke lift into the sky.

As soon as I heard the explosion, I yelled at my husband and screamed at our neighbors to lock up their house. We live downwind and it was coming straight at us. The sirens were going. We didn't know if it was an attack or something else. When you live in Richmond, you know there's a refinery there. But you just hope that it's safe.

It was about 15 minutes before anything came on the news. We had no warning call, which we get sometimes. We didn't know if we should jump in the car or what. The smoke completely blocked the sun.

Thankfully, only two minor injuries from the explosion were reported at the refinery and among the 100 firefighters who battled for five hours to contain the blaze. But that 4,000-foot high plume of black smoke that blacked out the sun was visible from all over the Bay Area, and it was filled with particulate matter, sulfur compounds, and other toxins. The San Francisco Chronicle reports that area hospitals logged 1,700 emergency room visits by people suffering from respiratory problems, vomiting, severe headaches and more.

Jessica and her husband followed the standard procedure to "shelter in place":

We stayed in our house and sealed the doors with painter's tape. Some people use plastic and cover the whole thing. Luckily, we have good airtight windows. My husband still woke up with inflamed throat the next morning.

A Chevron spokesperson apologized for "inconveniencing our neighbors." But the knowledge that it's not safe to breathe in your own home is not an inconvenience, it's terror. Going to the emergency room is always scary, but going to an ER that's seeing hundreds of other people for similar symptoms, while a black mushroom cloud spreads over your neighborhood? That's terror.

It's also part of a pattern of failure by Chevron and regulators to protect the public. In 2010, Chevron agreed to install a real-time ground level air-monitoring system to detect hazardous air pollution in communities near the refinery. Now, state regulators are saying that there is little risk, but you can't find what you don't look for... that monitoring system was never installed.

A spokesperson for California's Division of Occupational Safety and Health said, "Investigators have notified us that Chevron's emergency response was excellent." But Chevron knew about a leak at about 4:15. They didn't shut down the plant. And they waited to report a problem, despite the requirement that it report emergencies like this immediately. The San Jose Mercury News has reported on how the emergency warning system failed. Jessica notes that she "never heard from Chevron or authorities." Her first thoughts on hearing the explosion were to protect her pets and to warn her neighbors -- a lesson lost on Chevron.

To add insult to injury, now Chevron and its apologists have tried to blame its problems on community members who stopped an expansion of the massive refinery. But the Sierra Club, and the refinery workers whom we collaborate with through the BlueGreen Alliance, know that the only thing standing in the way of safety improvements at the Richmond refinery is Chevron itself.

Residents of the East Bay -- and that includes Berkeley and Oakland, which are also downwind of the plant -- must now contend with the aftermath of toxic smoke that made its way into the homes and lungs of an entire community. The most vulnerable, those with asthma or other health problems that compromise their bodies' defenses, will not just be "inconvenienced." And everyone, no matter how healthy, faces unknown long-term health effects. That is terror.

The Sierra Club stands with Communities for a Better Environment in demanding a few obvious things from Chevron and from the State of California:

  • A community-based investigation of the accident, paid for by Chevron but independent and overseen by members of the community. We need to know went wrong and how this kind of accident can be prevented.
  • Broader community compensation that goes beyond reimbursing medical bills and firefighting costs. When the BART system shut down, for instance, it isolated communities and people lost work.
  • Chevron needs to stop blaming everyone else for its problems. This argument, in the words of Richmond community organizer Andres Soto, is both disingenuous and outrageous: "The crude unit that exploded had nothing to do with Chevron's expansion proposal."

Another of the Sierra Club's local partners, the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, notes that Chevron had $13.7 billion in profits in the first two quarters of 2012 and asks, "how much is enough to assure safety of this refinery?"

At a facility that is California's  #1 producer of greenhouse gasses, in a county that produces more hazardous materials per capita and square mile than any other in the state, Chevron must do a lot better.

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