More than 150 people packed into the headquarters of the Richmond Progressive Alliance last night to tell their stories of the Aug. 6 refinery fire. Speakers from local environmental and community groups criticized the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, which is charged with regulating air pollution, and called for accountability from Chevron.
“This has set us back!” said Mayor Gayle McLaughlin, citing the impact of the very visible refinery fire on the city’s reputation and property values.
The meeting was led by representatives from Communities for a Better Environment, a statewide environmental justice group which is perhaps best known locally for its part in the 2009 suit that halted Chevron’s Renewal Project. The meeting was billed as an alternative to Chevron’s Aug. 7 town-hall meeting, which moderator and CBE organizer Andres Soto called a “dog and pony show.”
Local residents and speakers from the Asian Pacific Environment Network, the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, and the Iron Triangle Neighborhood Council, among other groups, worried aloud about the long-term health impacts of the fire and expressed frustration with the authorities charged with monitoring those impacts, especially the BAAQMD.
Denny Larson, Executive Director of Global Community Monitor, said that BAAQMD’s monitoring is “in a sorry state.” “It’s shameful,” he said, and uses “stone age technology.” BAAQMD hasfive monitors in West Contra Costa County. Larson and others demanded a larger network of real-time air quality monitors, which BAAQMD has called infeasible.
When it came time for public comment, residents recalled fear and confusion as the fire raged on Aug. 6.
Doria Robinson, the executive director of Urban Tilth, which works with local youth to run 11 small farms and community gardens in Richmond, said that after a summer of farming, her heart sank when she saw the smoke from the refinery fire.
“There was this black plume overhead, over every single one of our gardens,” Robinson said. “And for the first time growing food in Richmond, I wondered whether our food was safe.”
Carressa Yearby, 21, said that she became frantic when she saw the smoke from the refinery fire – not out of fear for her own safety, but for her grandmother, who was at home: “That’s my heart,” said Yearby.
Yearby, a Richmond resident and college student, had been passing the RPA office on a bus when she saw an RPA volunteer standing outside in a gas mask, handing out flyers, and decided this was where she needed to be. Chevron, she said, is “only getting away with what we let them get away with.”
Richmond resident Melissa Peebles recalled riding BART the night of the fire, when authorities closed the stations at Richmond, El Cerrito Del Norte, and El Cerrito Plaza. Hundreds of people were simply dropped off in North Berkeley, Peebles said, with no instructions on how to get home. Peebles and several other residents walked to a bus stop on San Pablo Avenue, but, she said, the driver warned passengers that he didn’t know how far he’d take them – if BART wasn’t going into Richmond, he didn’t know if he wanted to go there, either. Riders could see the plume from the refinery fire ahead of them. “We didn’t know what we were heading into,” Peebles said.
Greg Karras, a senior scientist at Communities for a Better Environment, encouraged locals to turn out on Monday for a public meeting, where officials will begin to hash out guidelines for an investigation into the refinery fire. The meeting will include city officials and representatives from Chevron, the United Steelworkers — which represents workers at the refinery — the Federal Chemical Safety Board, the County Hazardous Materials Program, and community groups including CBE. This will be the first time that such an investigation includes participation from community groups and is fully open to the public, Karras said. The meeting will be Monday, Aug. 27 at 10 a.m., in the City Council chambers.
Thursday night’s meeting will be rebroadcast in full from 9-11 a.m. Sunday morning on KPFA, 94.1 FM.