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Chevron’s Big Bang

by Alexander Cockburn And Jeffrey St. Clair

In the Bay Area in California the Chevron refinery is,naturally, in the poor part of the Contra Costa county. The nearest youraverage middle-class person gets to Richmond is on Highway 580 or Interstate80, rolling up towards Sacramento or Marin County. The town of Richmondlies east across the Bay from the sad bulk of San Quentin prison, with alargely black population of around 100,000 whose grandfathers and grandmotherswere mustered back in World War Two from the southern states to work inthe Kaiser shipyards. These days the shipyards are long gone. Unemploymentis sky high. There are all the usual scars: drugs, people with nowhere tolive, hunger.

The Chevron refinery sits on the end of Richmond, severalhundred acres of tanks and pipe. You can see it from almost any front porchin town. The smell is always there, a chemical stink that’s so thick thatpeople say it sits like a lifetime weight on their chests. Breathing problemsare a curse found in almost every family, most particularly among the veryyoung and the old. All in all, Richmond offers as stark a parable of environmentalinjustice as you can find anywhere in America. And of course, the town isno stranger to the ratcheting up of “normalcy” – stink, grit,industrial filth, clogged lungs, to the official status of “accident”.Since 1989 there have been 29 serious “incidents” at refineriesin Contra Costa County. A few weeks before the Chevron blast, a fire atthe Tosco Refinery in Martinez, 25 miles to the east of Richmond, killedfour workers.

The Chevron explosion came on March 25. At 2:28 pm in theafternoon there was a huge bang. People closest to the refinery later describedit to us as sounding as though a Mack truck had crashed into their house,which is indeed what some of them thought had happened. A column of thick,acrid, foul- smelling smoke rose high in the air, cloaked the refinery andthen began to drift slowly to the southeast. We talked to workers from theSanta Fe Railroad whose site borders the refinery. Will Taylor, a man inhis 40s, described how instant waves of nausea brought him and his co-workersto their knees, retching and gasping for breath. “My eyes burned. Mynose ran. With each breath I got sick to my stomach.” A strong chemicaltaste stayed in his mouth and he felt poorly for days.

The blast came exactly at the moment kids in the area werebeing let out of school. Teachers rushed them back in, but already manyof them were sick and terrified. Eight miles from the Chevron refinery isSpectrum School, for seriously disabled children, whose back fence separatesit from the Unocal refinery. Richmond’s parents say caustically that it’sno accident they should have such a school. Many babies in the county areborn with serious impairments. We were told by one mother that her daughter,who goes to Spectrum, had the familiar range of reactions after the explosion,diarrhea, nausea, compounded with the terror and disorientation of an autisticchild.

By six o’clock that Thursday evening, radio stations werereporting Chevron’s statement that a pipe had burst and fuel had ignited;that there was no perils from the cloud that by now had drifted down acrossBerkeley. From mid-afternoon, roads south like 880, were heavily clogged.There were no buses or BART trains running. The emergency warning system,set up in 1995 after wearisome negotiations with the refineries, did notwork well.

Around Doctor’s Hospital and Kaiser Richmond, tents wereput up in parking lots to shelter the flood of frightened and vomiting residents.There were throngs of crying children and teary-eyed coughing adults oftendoubled over. Up and down the corridors one could hear people complainingloudly about the lack of warning and lack of treatment. Staffers at thesehospitals weren’t so friendly either, often saying flat-out, “thesepeople are malingerers”.

It became clear to us that the sickness was not somethingthat passed within a few hours of the black plume. Four days later, CounterPunchmet with scores of families where people were still sick, and inhalers werebeing freely passed out by the hospitals. We saw people retching, red eyedand teary. We heard descriptions of babies vomiting and crying all day.

The fire was put out early Sunday morning. By Monday therewere rumors in Richmond that Chevron was handing out $500 in cash to peoplein exchange for a written promise not to file a lawsuit. By Tuesday, weheard that Chevron was threatening contract workers that if they becameparty to any suit, they would never work in the refinery again. When itcomes to jobs Chevron is one of the very few games in town.

On March 30 Michael Meadows, an attorney based in ContraCosta County, filed suit on behalf of Richmond residents. The case couldgo on for years, as happened with a similar suit against Unocal that Meadowshandled. Meanwhile, lobbyists for Chevron, Unocal and the others will continueto press for statutory limits on such damage and class action suits. “Normalcy”- in other words, high rates of disease, unemployment, poverty and crime- will continue in Richmond.

But there are also hopeful signs. Across the years there’sbeen some dedicated organizing. In this context the key grassroots outfitis Community For a Better Environment, whose Henry Clark and Cynthia Jordan,among others, have established such imaginative strategies as “bucketbrigades” where the locals regularly capture samples of air qualityin plastic bags which are then sent to a lab for analysis.

Upcoming is a blending of several issues. North Richmond’sNeighborhood House and local churches are planning town meetings to educateand agitate on the issue of the refineries and also on a suit against theCIA launched by Oakland attornies William Simpich and Katya Komisaruk onthe issue of the CIA’s complicity in the import and sale of crack cocaineinto Richmond and other west coast communities in the 1980s.

And, yes, within hours of the bang, gas prices in the BayArea began to climb. CP

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American Violence (with JoAnn Wypijewski and Kevin Alexander Gray). He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net. Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.

CounterPunch Magazine

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