2022 – A fire at the Chevron refinery in California sparks a generation of activists

Written by Daniel Rinwich

On the afternoon of August 6, 2012, a thick black cloud grew over Richmond, California, 10 miles northeast of San Francisco. As smoke filled the air, residents instinctively recognized the source: the Chevron oil refinery, which had loomed over working-class society for decades.

In the days that followed, 15,000 people came to the area in search of medical treatment for respiratory problems. Residents later learned that a corroded pipe had leaked and exploded, sparking the area’s worst filter disaster in memory. Chevron, which fully resumed operations the following year, was eventually fined $2 million for the accident and did not appeal six criminal charges, including failing to repair “defects” in equipment. The company later paid the city $5 million to settle a lawsuit over the fire. (When asked for comment, a Chevron spokesperson wrote in part, β€œSince 2012, we have taken a wide range of actions to continually improve process safety performance.) They added, β€œOur 3,000 employees take on their role as good neighbors and work consistently to ensure safe operation and protect the environment.” .”)

Richmond residents have experienced previous refinery explosions, and years of pollution have taken a heavy toll: The prevalence of asthma in predominantly black, Hispanic, and Asian cities is nearly double the national average. But the fire sparked a new and ongoing wave of environmental activism.

β€œI think the 2012 fire played a huge role in creating a generation of young people who are angry and look at the status quo and say ‘enough is enough,’” said Alfredo Angulo, who was 12 when the fire broke out.

Progressives hold the majority of seats on the city’s city council and have taken polluting industries, banning coal exports from the Port of Richmond and suing fossil fuel companies for their role in climate change.

Ten years after the disaster Nexus Media News Talk to four Richmond community organizers about the city’s history, their memories of the disaster, and their vision for Richmond’s post-Chevron.

“We have always been a city of company.”

Robin Lopez, PhD student at UC Berkeley, 33: Richmond is a vibrant community of people from all walks of life, many of whom are seeking asylum here from other countries. We have a large Latino population as well as a lot of Southeast Asians. Unfortunately, Richmond experienced a massive exodus of our black community members. These are the very vulnerable population.

Robin Lopez. Credit: Malcolm Wallace

Alfredo Angulo, Richmond Listening Project, 22: We’ve always been a commercial city – it wasn’t even Richmond It was founded even after the arrival of the Chevron refinery in 1902. We are the center of the industry, not just Chevron. The Pullman Railroad Company had stores here; The Santa Railroad had a home here. was uranium [handled] Here during World War II.

Because of the legacy of the red line and residential segregation, black and brown communities face most of the burdens of the industry that made Richmond what it is today.

Lopez: We have the narrative that chevrons were here before the city was incorporated. But even before the city was incorporated, people used to live here. And even before the colonists were here, the original land agents were here: Ohlone. These are not people from the past. These are our friends. We have community members who are part of the Ohlone community and are fighting for federal recognition.

Catherine Ramos, Richmond Alliance for Our Strength, 42: At least once a month, a loud alarm goes off that can be heard everywhere. It makes us feel like something is about to hit us like a bomb. This is a chevron alert exercise. It sends our nervous system into these unruly conditions; It’s as if they’re telling us that We are still here.

On August 6, 2012:

Lopez: I just finished working at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. I remember taking BART [Bay Area Rapid Transit] home and I saw a dark column of smoke above our house. Mom comes outside looking up and we say What is happening? And we turn on the news and start seeing and hearing things that are leaking.

Brandy Khansouvong, Asia Pacific Environmental Network, 29: My mom and aunt don’t speak much English – their mother tongue is Lao. So it was hard for me to explain to them what was going on. I told my mom to close all the windows because the chevrons are on.

corner: I remember going into my kitchen with the window looking out over the refinery and seeing a huge plume of black smoke covering everything. It felt like the end of the world as the entire sky turned black and the neighbors outside tried to figure out what was going on.

On the impact of the disaster on public health:

Khansophong: My aunt needed medical attention because she has a heart condition and asthma. She ended up in the hospital for eight days.

corner: We had just brought my grandmother from Mexico to look after her when she was in her seventies. After that day, she had asthma – until then she had never had asthma in her life. We brought in my grandmother to keep her safe, and the refinery did just that.

Ramos: Hundreds of people ended up in the hospital. Thousands of people suffer from long-term respiratory problems that have been exacerbated by other health problems associated with pollution.

Richmond Our Strength Alliance – a coalition of nine organizations dedicated to keeping us away from fossil fuels and shutting down the Chevron refinery – was born from this explosion. Many members of the community banded together and were weary after 120 years of devastation.

“Enough is enough”

corner: It’s hard to distinguish between the direct result of the 2012 fire and the result of you growing up here. One in four children growing up in Richmond will have asthma at some point in their lives. My sister and I have had asthma all our lives. I can’t even say how many hours I spent in the hospital as a child with asthma complications.

Khansophong: My parents came to Richmond to escape the war in Laos. They wanted to find a safe place to raise their children and have a better life.

When my mom first came here, they didn’t know there was a big oil refinery in our backyard. They found out there had been an explosion at a Chevron refinery in the ’90s – I must have been a kid then. After the explosion, my father developed asthma and some of my uncles had trouble breathing. My aunt also suffers from asthma and heart problems. Sometimes she says the air makes it hard for her to breathe and hurts her heart.

Some members of my family have breathing problems. The elderly in my family, my mother and aunt, are not breathing and are constantly sick. They depend on me to take care of them and take them to the doctors. Now I have a 7-year-old son. He’s at summer school near the refinery and I’m afraid he’s breathing that air.

Lopez: There is even a study by a team at the University of California at Berkeley that showed that chevron pollution also affects the indoor air quality of these residents’ homes. no escape.

corner: Chevron saves about 25-26% of the city’s budget [through tax revenue]. We are toxic to chevrons. So there is a lot of fear in the community about the day Chevron is gone.

This is where we come in – Project Richmond Listening – and start conversations with people about a future outside of Chevron.

Our goal with the project is to amplify the stories and voices of the communities most affected by fossil fuel operations here in Richmond. I was thrilled to discover in these conversations that ordinary people had a vision of Richmond outside of Chevron. It is a society where we have clean air, clean water, clean soil and where our economy is renewable and not dependent on fossil fuel extraction.

Ramos: The 2012 fire was one of the “enough is enough” moments. Many environmental sanitation organizations joined forces and formed an alliance.

We have created a mutual help network. We have developed a collaborative business incubator; Co-op housing structures are in place so people can stay here.

What was once a landfill has been converted by Community Unity Park. Many community events take place here. rich city ride, [a nonprofit that promotes cycling as a green mode of transportation]Our Sunday self-care trips start from there.

In North Richmond, Urban Tilthdas has produced hundreds of pounds of fresh, organic, locally grown foods that go to a community that usually doesn’t have access to these types of food.

The people who lived here wanted more than just to fight against this refinery, they wanted to create the future he envisioned.

Khansophong: I started going to APEN [Asian Pacific Environmental Network] interview my mother. My mother always says she ran away from war to find a better life, but the pollution here brings with it its own challenges. It meant a lot to me to be part of the network. We can share our experiences with others [frontline] Communities. Sometimes we cry – it can get emotional.

corner: After the fire, the Richmond Progressive Alliance banded together to remove political power from Chevron and return that decision-making power to the hands of the community. We have a progressive majority in the city council and have been able to pass several environmental policies. We have banned the transportation of coal in Richmond and introduced a progressive tax on corporate income.

I think the fire of 2012 played a huge role in producing a generation of angry young people looking at the status quo and saying, ‘Enough is enough’. We are a generation that have never lived in a world without living in it. Climate crisis and we are beginning to see that we have no time for laziness.


Nexus Media has reissued it.

This article was made possible by a grant from the Open Society Foundations. Nexus Media News is an editorially independent, not-for-profit news service on climate change. Follow us Tweet embed.

Photos and images are via Nexus Media, and are either in the public domain or their authors have made them freely available to share.


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