As a global figure in the environmental movement, Desmond D’Sa sees more industrial pollution each year than most people see in a lifetime. He said what he saw in Richmond as part of a “toxic tour” of the city and unincorporated North Richmond communities surrounding the Chevron refinery was not unfamiliar.
“I come from a fenceline community that is part of the biggest petrochemical cluster in all of Africa,” D’Sa said. “What I see here today reminds me of home. And just like at home, it’s all about corporate greed.”
D’Sa spoke a group of about 15 activists and community members who gathered Monday on Castro Street, just outside of Chevron Corp. headquarters. As the chairperson of South Durban Community Environmental Alliance in South Africa, D’Sa was invited to visit Richmond and meet with several San Francisco Bay Area community groups and advocacy organizations to tour the neighborhoods immediately surrounding the global energy giant’s refinery.
Also on hand Monday were longtime North Richmond environmental activists Henry Clark and Kenneth Davis, both of whom said Chevron Corp. has been unresponsive to their concerns about health risks in North Richmond, a tiny, impoverished community that sits less than 1 mile from refinery smokestacks.
“They say publicly that they want to be a good neighbor, but that’s just a lie,” Clark said, alleging that only legal action can dissuade the corporation from expanding operations and emitting more toxins into nearby neighborhoods.
But Chevron Corp. spokesperson Melissa Hollander said the energy company is committed to following the law and being a good neighbor in the areas where it does business.
“Chevron is regulated by strict environmental standards enforced by government agencies like the Bay Area Air Quality Management District whose role is to protect public health,” Hollander wrote in an email Tuesday. “It is our role to make sure the refinery meets or exceeds these standards.”
Hollander added that over the last decade, the air quality management agency has never found Chevron’s emissions to exceed state or national standards – a record that critics dispute.
The activists initially gathered in the Chevron Corp. parking lot off Castro Street Monday afternoon. Within minutes, company representatives approached the band of demonstrators and ordered them off company property.
Speaking for several minutes on the sidewalk just beyond Chevron Corp.’s property, D’Sa stressed that small groups of committed activists can alter the policies of major multinational corporations. He said that collecting and distributing data regarding pollution and its health impacts were crucial in winning larger public support for environmental reforms.
“You can win against giants,” D’Sa said.
Chevron Corp. has maintained a major facility in Richmond since the late 19th Century. Last year, the company reported $19.02 billion in profits, its second-best year in its history. The company employs about 6,500 people in
the East Bay, and more than 1,000 in Richmond, although critics contend that very few of those jobs are held by Richmond residents.
Chevron Corp. is the city’s largest taxpayer as well, accounting for more than one-third of the city’s revenue. Hollander also noted that Chevron Corp. donated about $3.7 million last year to nonprofits and civic organizations in West Contra Costa last year, an area that includes Richmond.
Last month, Chevron restarted its legal efforts to gain approval for a project meant to upgrade equipment at the refinery, replace aging components and increase refining capabilities. The project was halted by a county appellate court in 2009 after legal action was initiated by several local environmental advocacy groups.
D’Sa several times emphasized the state of California’s role in leading the way toward more efficient energy policies.
“Particularly around pollution control regulation, the world follows California,” D’Sa said.
When asked what local residents can do to impact operations at the refinery, D’Sa pointed to using the old-fashioned legislative processes. “Get reform at the state level,” D’Sa said. “With budgets that reward renewable [energy] and laws that require [pollution] reduction.”
Among the groups represented Monday were Communities for a Better Environment, Global Community Monitor, Asia Pacific Environmental Network, the Richmond Progressive Alliance, West County Toxics Coalition, Bay Area Coalition of Concerned Citizens, and the Movement for Climate Justice West. D’Sa’s visit was sponsored by International Development Exchange (IDEX), a San Francisco based nonprofit that provides grants and assistance to locally-run organizations in Africa, Asia and Latin America.