A Chevron Refinery Fire in California Created a Generation of Activists

By Danielle Renwich

On the afternoon of August 6, 2012, a thick black plume grew over Richmond, California, 10 miles northeast of San Francisco. As the air thickened with smoke, residents instinctively knew the source: the Chevron oil refinery that has loomed over the working-class community for decades.

In the days that followed, 15,000 people in the area sought medical treatment for respiratory problems. Residents would later learn that a corroded pipe had leaked and exploded, triggering one of the area’s worst refinery disasters in living memory. Chevron, which resumed full operations the following year, was eventually fined $2 million for the incident and pleaded not guilty to six criminal charges, including failure to “correct deficiencies” in equipment. The company later paid the city $5 million to settle a lawsuit stemming from the fire. (When reached for comment, a Chevron spokesperson wrote in part: “Since 2012, we have taken a number of steps to continuously improve process safety performance. They added: “Our workforce of 3,000 people takes their role as good neighbors seriously and works continuously to ensure safe operation and environmental protection.”)

Richmond residents had lived through previous refinery explosions, and years of pollution had taken their toll: The incidence of asthma in most black, Hispanic, and Asian cities is nearly double the state average. But the fire sparked a new and lasting wave of environmental activism.

“I think the 2012 fire had a big 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 took place.

Progressives hold the majority of seats on the city’s city council and have taken on polluting industries, banned coal exports from Richmond’s port and sued fossil fuels for their role in climate change.

Ten years after the disaster, Nexus Media News spoke with four Richmond community organizers about the city’s history, their memories of the disaster and their visions for a post-Chevron Richmond.

“We’ve always been a company town.”

Robin Lopez, PhD candidate at UC-Berkeley, 33: Richmond is a vibrant community of people from all walks of life, many seeking refuge here from other countries. We have a large Latinx population as well as a lot of Southeast Asian people. Unfortunately, Richmond has witnessed a huge exodus of our fellow black community members. These are very vulnerable population groups.

Robin Lopez. Credit: Malcolm Wallace

Alfredo Angulo, Richmond Listening Project, 22: We’ve always been a company town—Richmond wasn’t even established until after the Chevron refinery arrived in 1902. We’re a hub for industry, not just Chevron. The Pullman railroad company formerly had stores here; The Santa Fe Railroad had its home here. Uranus was [handled] here during the Second World War.

Due to the legacy of redlining and residential segregation, black and brown communities face the majority of the burden from the industry that made Richmond what it is today.

López: We have the story that Chevron was here before the town was even incorporated. But even before the city was incorporated, there were people here. And even before the colonizers were here, the land’s original custodians were here: the Ohlons. These are not people from the past; these are our friends. We have community members who are part of the Ohlone community who are fighting for federal recognition.

Katherine Ramos, Richmond Our Power Coalition, 42: At least once a month, a loud alarm goes off that you can hear everywhere. It makes us feel like something is going to be dropped on us like a bomb. It’s Chevron’s alert exercise. It sends our nervous system into this wild state; it’s like they’re telling us we are still here.

On August 6, 2012:

López: I had just finished work at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. I remember taking the BART [Bay Area Rapid Transit] home and see a cloud of dark smoke over our house. My mom comes outside and she looks up and we’re like what happens? And we turn on the news and we start to see and hear things trickle in.

Brandy Khansouvong. Courtesy: Asian Pacific Environmental Network

Brandy Khansouvong, Asian Pacific Environmental Network, 29: My mother and aunt don’t speak much English – their first language is Lao. So it was difficult for me to explain to them what was going on. I told my mom to close all the windows because the Chevron is on fire.

Angle: I remember walking into my kitchen, whose window faces the refinery, and seeing the massive cloud of black smoke covering everything. It felt apocalyptic, seeing the whole sky go black and seeing the neighbors outside trying to figure out what was going on.

On the impact of the disaster on public health:

Khan Souvong: My aunt had to see a doctor because she has a heart condition and asthma. She ended up in the hospital for, I think, eight days.

Angle: We had just brought my grandmother over from Mexico so we could look after her when she got into her 70s. She developed asthma after that day – she had never had asthma in her life until then. We had brought my grandmother to keep her from harm and the refinery did just that.

Ramos: Hundreds of people ended up in hospital. Thousands of people ended up with long-term respiratory problems that were exacerbated by other health problems related to pollution.

The Richmond Our Power Coalition — a coalition of nine organizations working to move us away from fossil fuels and decommission Chevron’s refinery — came out of that explosion. A large part of society came together and felt tired after 120 years of injury.

Katherine Ramos. Credit: Denny Khamphanthong

“Enough is enough”

Angle: It’s hard to tell what’s a direct result of the 2012 fire and what’s the result of just growing up here. One in four children growing up in Richmond will develop asthma at some point in their lives. My sister and I have had asthma our whole lives. I can’t even quantify how many hours I spent in the hospital as a child with asthma complications.

Khan Souvong: My parents came to Richmond to escape the war in Laos. They wanted to find a safe place to raise their children, to live a better life.

When my mom first came here, they didn’t know there was a big oil refinery in our backyard. They found that out because there was an explosion at the Chevron refinery in the 90s – I must have been a baby at the time. After the explosion, my father developed asthma and a couple of my uncles developed respiratory problems. My aunt also has asthma and heart disease. Sometimes she says the air makes it so she can’t breathe and it hurts her heart.

A few people in my family have respiratory problems. The elderly in my family, my mother and my aunt, cannot breathe and are always sick. They depend on me to take care of them and take them to the doctor. Now I have a 7½-year-old son. He goes to summer school near the refinery and I’m worried about him breathing in the air.

López: There was even a study done by a team at UC Berkeley that showed that pollution from Chevron also affects the indoor air quality in these residents’ households. There is no escape.

Alfredo Angulo. Courtesy: Alfredo Angulo

Angle: Chevron accounts for about 25-26% of the city’s budget [through tax revenue]. We are toxically dependent on Chevron. So there is a lot of fear in the community for the day that Chevron is no longer here.

This is where we—the Richmond Listening Project—come into the picture and start conversations with people about a future beyond Chevron.

Our goal with the project is to amplify the stories and voices of the communities most harmed by fossil fuels here in Richmond. I was excited to discover, in these conversations, that ordinary people have a vision for a Richmond beyond Chevron. It is a society where we have clean air, clean water, clean soil and where our economy is regenerative and not based on the extraction of fossil fuels.

Ramos: The 2012 fire was one of those “enough is enough” moments. Several environmental law organizations came together and formed a coalition.

We have created a mutual aid network; we have developed a cooperatively owned business incubator; there are cooperatively owned structures for housing so people can afford to stay here.

The community converted what used to be a landfill into Unity Park. This is where a lot of community events take place. Rich City Rides, [a nonprofit that promotes cycling as a green mode of transportation]starting our Self-Care Sunday rides there.

In North Richmond, you have Urban Tilth, which produces hundreds of pounds of fresh, organic hyper-locally grown food that goes out to the community that normally doesn’t have access to these types of foods.

People who have lived here wanted more than just to fight this refinery, but to create the future they envisioned.

Khan Souvong: I started going to APEN [Asian Pacific Environmental Network] meetings with my mother. My mother always says she escaped the war to find a better life, but the pollution here brings its own challenges. Being part of the network has meant a lot to me. We have been able to share our experiences with others [frontline] communities. Sometimes we cry – it can get emotional.

Angle: In the wake of the fire, the Richmond Progressive Alliance came together to take political power away from Chevron and put that decision-making power back in the hands of the community. We have a progressive majority in the city council, and we have been able to adopt a lot of environmental policies. We banned the transportation of coal in Richmond and passed a progressive tax on corporate income.

I think the 2012 fire had a big role in creating a generation of young people who are angry and look at the status quo and say, “Enough is enough.” We are a generation that has never lived in a world without the climate crisis, and we are beginning to see that we have no time for inaction.

Republished from Nexus Media.

This article was made possible by a grant from the Open Society Foundations. Nexus Media News is an editorially independent, nonprofit news service covering climate change. follow us @NexusMediaNews.

Image and photos via Nexus Media, and are either in the public domain or their authors have made them available for syndication for free.


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