Part 7: North Richmond’s troubled environmental history

dumping in north richmond

Trash dumped overnight at the corner of Market and 2nd Streets (photo by Robert Rogers)

From the corner of Filbert Street and Chesley Avenue, the unofficial center of North Richmond, a person gets the full sensory onslaught that the community has endured for decades.

To the west, the largest oil refinery on the West Coast spews plumes of white smoke that spout during “flaring,” a process that releases airborne gases generated during the petroleum refining process. To the south, empty buildings stand next to noisy railroad tracks.

To the north, one may hear the rumble of trucks, which incessantly roll by loaded with various wastes, en route to the nearby landfill. On any given block at any given time, there may be a pile of discarded trash—mattresses, paint cans, diapers.

In the late 1990s, North Richmond was literally a dumping ground for private and commercial interests all over the Bay Area looking for a place to unload garbage for free. Dumping was illegal and subject to fines, but sheriff’s patrols were stretched thin.

trash trucks at county transfer station north richmond

Trucks rumble day and night to the waste transfer station near North Richmond (photo by Robert Rogers)

Newspaper accounts from the time describe entire blocks and vacant lots covered in flotsam and jestsam, the noxious loads dumped under the cover of night.

While not quite the menace it was in the late 1990s, dumping remains a nuisance in North Richmond, along with a host of other environmental problems that have degraded quality of life and marred the area’s reputation for decades.

Such is life in this small, unique community just off the shores of San Pablo Bay. North Richmond is less than one mile from Chevron’s sprawling refinery, to which local activists have long attributed health and environmental problems. Add to that air pollution from railroad tracks, from heavy trucks and a nearby waste transfer station, all swirling in the air North Richmonders breathe.

Progress has been made, by virtually all accounts, but the environmental challenges – and the stigma of being an unhealthy place – remain.

Henry Clark

West County Toxic's Henry Clark during a protest outside John Gioia's office. (photo by Robert Rogers)

“Our community has always borne the costs of the profits generated by the refinery and the other toxic manufacturers around here,” said Henry Clark, president of the West County Toxics Coalition, a group that has fought for better environmental conditions in North Richmond.

But it’s difficult to gauge precisely how serious the problem is. The Community Air Risk Evaluation (CARE) program, task force created in 2004 to evaluate and reduce health risks associated with exposures to outdoor toxic air contaminants in the Bay Area, produced a 2008 report that offered assessment and recommendations on the cities most vulnerable to air pollution. North Richmond was on the short list—along with West Oakland and the city of Richmond—of communities with the Bay Area’s highest cancer rates, with more than 1,200 expected incidents of cancer per million people.

Additionally, according to a 2006 study by the Contra Costa Asthma Coalition titled “Blueprint for Asthma Action,” hospitalization rates for children with asthma under 15 years old in Richmond and San Pablo zip codes were found to be double the state’s rate, and community activists in North Richmond say they think rates in their specific community may be even higher.

The majority of the emissions in North Richmond, as in Oakland, are from deisel particulates from heavy trucks, according to the CARE study. But carbon dioxide emissions from Chevron’s Richmond refinery are also significant, amounting to about 4.8 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions in 2008, according to a 2008 report by the California Air Resources Board, making it one of the biggest emitters in the country.

Ralph Borrmann, public information officer for the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD), said that while North Richmond faces several environmental challenges, the risks are not necessarily more extreme than those in many other communities in the state, including West Oakland. “With the rail transport, and the highway, and the Chevron and the landfill, there are a number of sources” of emissions in the area, Borrmann said.

Additionally, Borrmann said, North Richmond is in part spared from further pollution because of its relatively remote location. “When you look at what your risks are, usually one of the main culpirts is, where is the highway? Where is the truck traffic?” Borrmann said. “In this case, the traffic from Richmond Parkway is not particularly heavy or close.”

chevron refinery

Chevron refinery, as seen from Richmond Parkway (photo by Robert Rogers)

As for Chevron, which is less than one mile away, Borrmann acknowledged that carbon dioxide emissions may affect residents, but noted that “Refineries are heavily regulated, probably as much as any industry in the country, and as much in California as anywhere in the country.”

Chevron Corp. holds that improvements in the company’s technology have allowed it to produce cleaner fuels with lower emissions; a statement on the company’s website says that “By running our plants safely, reliably and investing in state-of-the-art technology, we have reduced the amount of pollutants emitted into the air by more than 50 percent over the last several decades.”

Additionally, said Chevron spokesperson Melissa Hollander, recent improvements to the Richmond refinery have been drastic. “The Richmond Refinery flaring levels in 2010 were reduced by more than 95 percent from 2004–2006 levels,” Hollander said. “In the last 10 years of continuous monitoring of the station closest to the refinery, BAAQMD reports that there has been no exceeding of state and national emissions standards related to refinery operations.”

Nevertheless, North Richmond leaders feel that the public perception of their neighborhood as a place with severe environmental degradation has long thwarted development. The reputation for air, water and soil pollutants may have hurt investment, depressed land and housing prices, and dimmed prospects for the community, said County Supervisor John Gioia, who represents North Richmond. “A challenge has always been that North Richmond is in the shadow of the Chevron refinery,” Gioia said. “So I think it was always been viewed as a less desirable place to build housing because it was near the refinery.”

Clark, as a longtime leader and activist in North Richmond, said the history of pollution in the area has always sent a foul message to residents. He spoke during a community event this year at Shields Reid Park, which had served as an evacuation center in July, 1993, when a railroad car carrying sulfuric acid from General Chemical Corp. ruptured in North Richmond, spewing tons of the highly toxic chemical into the air and sickening thousands of residents. In the aftermath of the spill, General Chemical pleaded no contest in to misdemeanor charges that it was at fault in the discharge and agreed to pay $800,000 to build a health clinic in North Richmond, as well as claims for residents that averaged about $3,000. The Center for Health opened in 1999 and is now considered one of the community’s more important assets.

“People of our community have always known that we are to some degree seen as expendable, that our lives are less important and more ready to be subjected to such dangers than other people in other places,” Clark said. “That’s why we have and will continue to struggle for our rights here.”

Clark has long advocated for unincorporated North Richmond to become a township, which he says will give it a stronger position from which to negotiate with large entities surrounding it.

Instead, North Richmond and its residents are too often forgotten, he said. “We have made progress, no doubt,” Clark said. “But we’re still a place that is seen as a dumping ground, just not quite so out in the open.”

In this environment, people are bombarded not only by unseen physical challenges like airborne pollution, but by something even more ethereal. When one’s community is seen as unfit for many people, but perfectly suited for industrial production and garbage dumps, it may have an impact on how one perceives oneself and his or her neighbors and family.

“You’ve got to understand what that does to a psyche of a community, and it still persists,” said Saleem Bey, a local activist who has stressed green jobs training as part of a community improvement plan. “We have literally been the garbage can for everybody else. The disrespect is just total.”

Bey sees it all daily. He has been an activist in North Richmond for just a few years, but he’s made an impact—good and bad, depending on whom you ask. He started working in the neighborhood as a county employee in youth and educational programming, but soon ran afoul of County Supervisor John Gioia, who represents North Richmond, and Barbara Becnel, leader of the Neighborhood House, a local social services agency. Sources close to Becnel say the rift with Bey was a clash of strong personalities, exacerbated by Bey’s poor performance on the job.

Bey adamantly denies those claims, and friends and colleagues paint him as a smart, passionate leader who strikes fear in the established powers because he represents change.

saleem bey

Saleem Bey in the former North Richmond Neighborhood House offices (photo by Robert Rogers)

Speaking in a small community building at that corner of Filbert Street and Chesley Avenue earlier this year, Bey admitted that he hasn’t been on good terms with some local leaders. “The county, and John Gioia, they want to keep things the way they are out here, which is basically a source of funds to keep employed a whole structure of county workers who benefit and make money from this poverty,” Bey said. “I wanted to see solutions, to see progress, and so they cast me off because I wouldn’t play the game.”

Gioia says that Bey, who actually lives in Oakland, has tried to intimidate the county into providing him funding for unproven programs. He dismisses Bey’s criticisms as motivated by a desire to force the county to award him contracts for social services.

The bickering may have slowed the community’s progress in improving its environment. In March, 2011, Becnel opted to return $175,000 in county grant money which had been meant to develop a North Richmond “Eco-Academy” to employ young people and expand on agriculture and beautification in the neighborhood. In a letter to county officials, Becnel alleged that Bey threatened her with organized protests if she didn’t give him the reins to the program. Bey said he developed the program and was tapped by Becnel to lead it, but that Gioia directed Becnel to remove him, a charge both Becnel and Gioia have denied.

“It’s divide and conquer out here,” Bey said, denying that he lobbed any threats Becnel’s way.

The squabble over funding for an ecological program is just the latest misstep in a series of development decisions that could have affected North Richmond’s environment. Development opportunities have been missed, particularly along the shoreline, which seemingly could have been a good site for housing or parks, but is instead home to the landfill, industrial buildings and a shooting range.

A 2009 report by the Pacific Institute, a nonpartisan research institute, called “Measuring What Matters,” states that the way in which industrial development was conducted without community input has created a curious twist of logic—a shoreline community with no access to the shoreline, [which is vulnerable to?] a heavy dose of pollutants.

“The Richmond Parkway—a major transportation corridor for trucks—divides most residential neighborhoods from the coast. Union Pacific train tracks run parallel to the parkway. In addition, industrial facilities, ranging from a commercial nursery to a regional landfill to Chevron, line the parkway. For residents, these structures have cut off the recreational, aesthetic, and educational opportunities created by open spaces and have harmed the local ecology and environment,” the report states.

Similarly, Richmond City Councilman Jim Rogers, in his memorable guest column that appeared in the Alameda Times Star on March 13, 2010, argued that North Richmond’s shoreline is a wasted asset. Specifically, Rogers wrote,“Locating a firing range in the middle of what should be a major recreational asset for nearby low-income neighborhoods is only one of the many zoning mistakes that can be corrected.”

The firing range, called the Richmond Rod & Gun Club and located on San Pablo Bay just off Goodrick Avenue, has occupied a large swath of the shoreline since at least the 1980s. Rogers wrote that the pollution—both from noise and from lead and other heavy metals that leach from spent ammunition—generated by the shoreline shooting range squandered the area’s broader recreational appeal.

Rogers proposed dedicating a specific tax income stream from shoreline properties to be used to reclaim or subsidize relocation of the interests currently occupying the land. “Having a detailed parcel-by-parcel vision is only the start. We need a vision of shoreline access, which gets all kids introduced to what our shoreline has to offer, whether that is windsurfing, kayaking, marine-based biology educational programs, beaches, the Bay Trail, etc. Having a thriving shoreline is a triple bottom line: Good for recreation, good for local jobs and good for the environment by reducing some lengthy recreational car trips to other shorelines,” Rogers wrote.

But that idea, Rogers acknowledged in an interview last month, is all but dead in the water.

“We had some discussions back in [2010], but the Rod & Gun Club was opposed to considering a voluntary relocation,” Rogers said. “Without buy-in from them, we can’t go anywhere with any larger vision that includes relocating them.”

So the environmental future of North Richmond, while incontrovertibly better than the past, remains an open question. As environmental impacts continue to lessen, as they surely have, North Richmond’s reputation as an unhealthy, even toxic environment should dissipate. Meanwhile, if re-zoning plans by the county take hold, more of North Richmond’s formerly industrialized lands will be remediated and replaced with housing and commercial developments.

It could all be a perfect storm of factors in creating a new reality in North Richmond.

“North Richmond is one of those last areas in the Bay Area where you have a pretty sizable amount of undeveloped land that is in a good location for housing,” Gioia said. “Frankly, the prices are moderate because it has been viewed as a less desirable place to live, and (those depressed prices) may be a key to its future.”

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