Hazardous to our health

Children at the St. Johns apartment complex on McDonald Avenue. A sign to the right warns of carcinogenic materials.

Children at the St. Johns apartment complex on McDonald Avenue. A sign to the right warns of carcinogenic materials.

In a story that first aired Thursday on UC Berkeley’s North Gate Radio, we explored the health hazards that abound in Richmond.

They range from a stubbornly-high rate of homicide and violent crime to environmental pollutants, including emissions from local factories and refineries and toxic remnants from discontinued industrial operations.

The story, which you can hear by clicking on the button above to the right, traveled from Parchester Village, where emergency horns from Chevron Corp.’s refinery blare regularly to test emergency response effectiveness, to several local apartment complexes laced with cancerous materials.

At St. Johns apartment complex on MacDonald Avenue, signs are posted next to every door warning of the presence of toxic contaminants. The signs are required by Proposition 65, a law passed by California voters in 1986 which mandates that people be made aware of the presence of toxic substances, like lead, arsenic and asbestos.

“I never really worried about it because there is just so much else going on,” said Chalisa Jones, a resident of St. Johns. As she spoke outside her apartment, her 9-year-old son played and chatted with other children. “But yeah, I’d like to be able to afford to live somewhere that didn’t have to have the signs up.”

The story is similar at Monterey Apartment complex off of Carlson and Cutting Blvd. in south Richmond. Phon Chanthanasak, 19, has lived here his entire life.

“Growing up, I’d see the signs around, but I didn’t really care,” Chanthanasak said. “It was more of surviving through whatever, like trying to live, than worrying about the pollution, because there was always shooting.”

A Chevron Corp. spokesman did not respond to several inquiries for comment, but Chevron officials have previously touted their progress in reducing emissions generated by their refining operations.

While much of the toxins present in Richmond are a legacy of the city’s industrial past, Chevron’s critics contend that its operations continue to impact public health.

A study released this year in the American Journal of Public Health, suggested that air pollution generated in part by Chevron’s refinery were present in elevated levels inside Richmond residents’ homes.

Researches also concluded that levels of vanadium and nickel – possibly byproducts of processes at the refinery and port – in Richmond were among the highest in the state.

Fueled in part by backlash against Chevron, the city elected Mayor Gayle McLaughlin in 2006, making her the only mayor identified with the Green Party to lead a city of more than 100,000 in the United States.

McLaughlin faces re-election this year, and many view the outcome of the November election to be a crucial fork in the road for Richmond’s future. McLaughlin has been a consistent and prominent critic of Chevron, arguing for imposing increased regulations and public revenue requirements on the city’s largest employer.

An opponent has not officially declared, but residents and City Hall watchers generally expect McLaughlin to face a tough battle for re-election.

But despite the ongoing environmental issues, it’s violent crime and homicide that dominate the consciousness of many Richmond residents, including those interviewed in the radio report.

Ten people have been slain in Richmond thus far this year, after the city logged a homicide total of 47 in 2009.

3 Comments

  1. A Richmondite

    Spellcheck. It’s your friend

  2. mark wassberg

    All it takes is one big explosion and hundreds of people are dead mostly African Americans.

  3. sue baby

    mark wassberg.. can you be more specific with that explosion comment please…thanks

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