Henry Clark and three decades of environmental justice

Henry Clark Occupy Chevron rally

Henry Clark spoke at the Occupy Chevron rally at Chevron's Richmond refinery gates in October 2012. (Photo by: Sara Bernard)

Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin first saw Henry Clark, as so many have, at the gates of Richmond’s Chevron oil refinery. It was a blustery day in June 2003 and Clark was calling for environmental accountability from the oil company – as he has for many years – in front of an impassioned crowd of community members holding signs attacking refinery flares and “dirty air.”

“He spoke prior to me” at the event, recalls McLaughlin, who had arrived armed with statistics about local asthma rates and with a group of activists who would later form the Richmond Progressive Alliance. After Clark’s speech about the history of environmental injustice in Richmond, she says, “I was very inspired. I was glad he spoke prior to me because he got me all fired up.”

Clark has been a presence at Chevron’s gates for a generation of Richmond activists. This October, dissatisfied with Chevron’s response to the August 6 fire, he appeared at the refinery again alongside one hundred protesters who had marched with him from downtown Richmond toting a 20-foot-long banner that read “Occupy Chevron.” With one fist in the air and the other gripping a megaphone, he addressed the crowd with a similar message: It is the public’s right to recognize – and campaign against – the disproportionate effects of environmental contamination on low-income communities of color.

Since he began confronting these issues in the early 1980s, Dr. Henry Clark, PhD, and the small organization he runs, the West County Toxics Coalition, have helped pioneer an environmental justice movement that has fundamentally changed the conversation in Richmond.

“He has really anchored consciousness so that Richmond is now seen as the cradle of the environmental justice movement, here and across the world,” says Greg Karras, who’s been working as a scientist with Communities for a Better Environment since before the WCTC was founded and has partnered with Clark on many campaigns. “Henry has made a difference in ways that we’ll be learning more about for a long time.”

Over the years, the WCTC has bolstered public participation in environmental regulations, urged regulators and city officials to act on toxics affecting residents, built numerous coalitions, organizations, and committees, and ultimately forced public acknowledgement of the complex interactions of race, class, and industrial contamination.

Clark’s role in Richmond helps suggest that “the environmental justice movement is not just a bunch of white hippie folks,” says longtime Richmond organizer Andres Soto, who’s followed Clark’s work for 30 years. “It’s a cross-cultural alliance of people that understand the impact that these industries are having.”

It’s been nearly three decades and counting, and Clark, 68, is stalwart. “I’m either standing for social justice and doing the right thing, or I’m not,” he says. “There’s no in-between. That’s where I’m at until the final end. I’m not planning to do anything other than that with my life.”

Henry Clark with other protesters at Occupy Chevron rally

Clark helped carry the 20-foot “Occupy Chevron” banner to the refinery gates. (Photo by: Sara Bernard)

Henry Clark was born in North Richmond in 1944, down the road from the Chevron refinery, which coughed out periodic clouds of ash, smoke and fiery explosions that buffeted the neighborhood, and pungent fumes that blanketed it.

“The foul odors would be so foul that sometimes you’d have to literally grab your nose and go back into the house and wait until the air cleared up,” Clark says. “Or you’d be waking up in the morning and finding the leaves on the trees burned to a crisp from chemical exposure.”

He attended both Peres and Verde Elementary schools, and remembers a North Richmond that was more dilapidated. His family didn’t speak much about the impact of the refinery and other local industry, although health issues became a subject of discussion once his mother began having headaches in the 1990s.

“I have family members that have died from cancer, and members of our organization that we’ve buried over the years with respiratory problems that they believe were associated with exposure,” he says, but correlations like these are always difficult to prove. Even after big industrial accidents, “there’s usually no long-term follow up in terms of how exposure to this particular incident plays out.”

Clark attended Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo for a few years and then San Francisco State University, where he began participating in the progressive political and social movements of his day – the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Power movement, and the Free South Africa movement. He was working as a program director of youth and community services at the Neighborhood House of North Richmond, founded in 1954 by a Quaker group, when he became involved with the Citizens Action League’s toxics subcommittee and Communities for a Better Environment, he says, in a campaign against a waste-burning plant to be located near Verde Elementary School.

The project had been “billed as a municipal waste incinerator,” says CBE’s Greg Karras, but it was slated for construction alongside the West Contra Costa Sanitary Landfill, at the time a dumping ground for hazardous waste. “When you see an incinerator proposed next to an uncontrolled toxic waste dump, you need to be very worried about that,” Karras says. The campaign was successful: the incinerator was never built and the landfill itself closed in 1985.

A few years after that campaign, when the Boston-based National Toxics Campaign sent one of its organizers to Richmond to help found a local, NTS-affiliated environmental justice organization, the man made a beeline for Clark.

“He came to my office and I said yes, I’ll help you, because I knew it was long overdue to build an organization to address these issues,” Clark says. When he was laid off from his job at Neighborhood House, he stepped forward as executive director of the West County Toxics Coalition in 1986. He’s had that role ever since.

“It primarily has been pioneering work,” he says. “We’ve been around a long time, so we are certainly pioneers here in Richmond, but also in the environmental justice movement, period, nationally and internationally.”

view of Chevron and industry from Point Richmond

Henry Clark grew up alongside the Chevron oil refinery and General Chemical Co. plant in North Richmond. (Photo by: Sara Bernard)

The West County Toxics Coalition was among delegates to the first People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit held in 1991 in Washington D.C. It was also a founding member of both the National Black Environmental Justice Network and the Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice. The WCTC has worked closely since its inception with CBE – which was one of its original sponsors – as well as with the Asian Pacific Environmental Network and Richmond-based Laotian Organizing Project (founded in 1993 and 1995).

Clark’s seen dozens of toxic disasters hit Richmond over the years, including a Chevron refinery explosion in 1989 that injured eight workers and left a cloud of smoke over the city for six days, a General Chemical Co. sulfuric acid release in July 1993 that sent 20,000 people to area hospitals, and, most recently, the August Chevron refinery fire, which occupies most of his time these days.

And Clark was quick to respond in all cases. “His wisdom is being clear and steady in articulating both problems and solutions, and speaking truth to power,” says Karras, who’s been to countless community meetings and hearings alongside Clark over the years. “He’s clear on his principles and won’t bend them.”

The list of the West County Toxic Coalition’s accomplishments is long: it helped launch a disaster warning system after the General Chemical release in 1993 that’s still being finessed today by the county. It was part of the creation of the North Richmond Center for Health, opened in 1999 with funds from a settlement with General Chemical. The WCTC played a key role in the Bay Area Air Quality Management District’s 2003 implementation of new flare emission regulations for petroleum refineries. In 2010, after a lawsuit filed by the WCTC and other environmental organizations, a Contra Costa County superior court judge ruled against Chevron’s proposal to expand the Richmond refinery and process heavier crude oil.

Because of these and many other campaigns, Clark and the WCTC have been featured and cited in social and environmental science studies and articles about Richmond’s toxic contaminants for decades. These include the Pacific Institute’s “Deluged by Diesel: Healthy Solutions for West County,” an environmental justice case study on the WCTC from the University of Michigan, the Global Community Monitor’s “Breathing Fire: West County Toxics Coalition’s 20 year Environmental Justice Struggle to Ban Toxic Flares,” and a special series in Environmental Health News called “Pollution, Poverty, and People of Color.” In all places, Clark’s approach is clear: as he tells the Global Community Monitor, “You either organize to make change in your environment and your living conditions or it’s going to get worse.”

Henry Clark “hasn’t changed what he stands for in all these years,” says Eleanor Thompson, executive director of Social Progress, Inc. and a North Richmond resident on and off since the 1970s. “He’s always been speaking out for the environment, saying that people here need to be healthy and breathe clean air. Ever since I’ve known him he’s been doing the same thing. He makes me feel that there’s someone watching out for the safety of the people of Richmond. Not for political gain – just watching out.”

Adds Reverend Andre Shumake, a Baptist minister and president of the Richmond Improvement Association, “I doubt very seriously that Richmond would be where we are today without Henry Clark. Especially in the African American community, he was the one informing us and educating us about environmental justice issues. He was the organizer; he was the voice. I am so grateful to him for that voice.”

For Clark, environmental justice issues are ultimately civil rights issues. One of his proudest achievements, he says, is WCTC’s role in urging the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors to build the North Richmond Municipal Advisory Council that now gives the unincorporated community of North Richmond a voice in industry and development conversations. Clark has served as president of the council for four years and has been a member for nine.

“I’ve been involved in a lot of political movements over the years,” he says. And when it comes down to it, “environmental justice is really politics.”

Henry Clark in his office in North Richmond

Henry Clark, executive director of the West County Toxics Coalition for nearly 30 years, works out of his office in North Richmond. It’s been “an uphill battle, a David and Goliath fight,” he says, “but it’s all worth it in the final end.” (Photo by: Sara Bernard)

Henry Clark is tall, imposing, and usually dressed in a colorful suit, complete with matching fedora. (His “rather dapper fashion reflects his north Richmond roots, you know,” says Andres Soto.) At one community meeting in October – to discuss the toxic contamination at a former Stauffer Chemical Co. property – Clark was wearing a crisp white suit and hat with a satin band. At our first meeting at his office in North Richmond, the pair were candy apple green; at our second, they were a matched set of red and black.

The books on Clark’s office shelves are a reminder of his current work: various collections of natural food cures, a West Contra Costa County guide to identifying hazardous waste, Green Chemistry: Theory and Practice.

Clark’s PhD, though, comes from, “well, a combination of sources” – primarily an online degree from the American College of Metaphysical Theology in Minnesota.

“I have a spiritual background,” Clark says. Although he was brought up Methodist, in different points in his life, that spirituality has included “various forms of Christianity, as well as Islam, as well as socialism.”

What interests him most, he says, is the nature of belief systems in general and what those systems say about humanity as a whole.

“I’m born here in America, you know, with one particular belief system which was pretty much passed on to me, OK,” he tells me. “There are other people in the world with other social systems, so why would I feel because I inherited this system that I was born into that this is the best thing since sliced bread? If I was born in say Palestine or Arabia or Cuba or the Soviet Union or somewhere I would think the same thing! I would think the same thing!”

Clark begins listing places he’s visited to “get a better perspective on world belief systems” – Iran, Cuba, Palestine, Ecuador, Puerto Rico, Nigeria, China – in the casual way that veteran globetrotters will. (“I’ve been to quite a few other countries too,” he adds.) He usually traveled to further the conversation about environmental justice, toxic contaminants, and what threats they pose to marginalized communities.

He’s been to Nigeria, for instance, to work alongside communities affected by oil production in the Niger Delta. He visited Vieques Island in Puerto Rico to support a class action lawsuit against the United States government for the Navy’s toxic weapons and materials testing there. He went to Cuba to learn about pesticide-free agricultural systems developed once the U.S. embargo prevented the island from importing pesticides. He went to Ecuador when Chevron bought out Texaco. (Texaco’s drilling “had contaminated the Amazon forest there,” he says. “So obviously I went there to meet with a lot of the people in the community addressing those particular issues.”)

And the list goes on. Although it began there, Clark’s work doesn’t end in North Richmond. In 1996, when DDT removed from the United Heckathorn Superfund site in the Richmond Harbor was supposed to end up at a facility in Mobile, Arizona, Clark traveled with the West County Toxics Coalition “and some of our allies” to protest alongside the people there.

“It was a Latino farmworker community,” he says. “The hazardous waste dump there was not even adequate to deal with that type of waste. So some of the colleagues we work with in that area asked me, ‘Why is it that y’all want to ship y’all waste to be dumped in our community?’ We said, ‘Well, yeah, that’s a good point.’”

The waste ended up in the ECDC disposal facility in Utah, where, Clark says, the community had voted to allow it.

“To say ‘Not in my backyard, but in someone else’s backyard, that’s OK,’” Clark says, “that ain’t really environmental justice.”

General Chemical and Chevron entrances

Both General Chemical and Chevron have had numerous toxic releases and other accidents over the years that have affected Richmond residents. (Photo by: Sara Bernard)

It takes Henry Clark a moment to come up with an answer when I ask if he thinks things are cleaner and safer now in Richmond.

“Well, it’s been a continuing struggle, you know, a continuing struggle,” he says. “The West County Toxics Coalition, we’ve won some victories. But the thing is, it’s an uphill battle, as they say, a David and Goliath fight.”

Since, for instance, “Chevron has so much money to put into elections or to buy local people off,” he says, and because “many of the [regulatory] agencies have been pretty much cozy cozy with companies like Chevron,” he’s been watching this work stall and backpedal since it begun.

Still, he doesn’t seem frustrated.

“If I could wave a magic wand and change things, I would,” he says with a ready laugh, his otherwise stern face bursting into warmth. “But I haven’t learned how to do that yet. So I try to enjoy myself and take it as it comes.”

I notice another item on Clark’s office wall, hung alongside dozens of mementos such as a flier for a lead poisoning prevention workshop or a Certificate of Appreciation for helping monitor the health of Wildcat Creek. It reads: Private Investigator, Stratford Career Institute, St. Albans, VT.

He nods and puts his fingers together. “In environmental justice work, I basically use all of my skills, one way or the other,” he says, adding that his role on the North Richmond Municipal Advisory Council means he’s often working with law enforcement.

“Because of my studying and involvement over the years in the many different interdisciplinary things that I do,” he says, “I sort of… have become somewhat of a…”

He struggles for words and then laughs, shaking his head. “…I guess you could say, ‘expert’ in those particular endeavors. And I don’t mind passing it on. Actually, it’s a principle I learned growing up. Especially during the Civil Rights Movement, there was a slogan, ‘Go get an education, come back and help your community, and pass it on.’”

He chuckles and nods again, rocking a little in his office chair, putting the phrase on repeat. “Pass it on, you know, pass it on. Whatever way that entails. Speaking or writing or whatever way, I need to pass it on to others.”

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