At town hall meeting, questions and anger over Chevron refinery fire
on August 8, 2012
Throngs of Richmond residents, upset and ready to be heard, gathered at a town hall meeting held by Chevron on Tuesday night, following the refinery fire that cloaked Richmond in a dark cloud of particulates the night before.
In the sunlit plaza out front of the Richmond Memorial Auditorium, community groups from around the city staged a rally before the meeting. Urban Tilth, a non-profit in West Contra Costa County that works with schools and other groups to teach people how to grow their own food, had a dozen or so members don face masks and display trash cans and wheelbarrows full of produce from community gardens. They were worried it had been damaged from the chemicals released during the fire. “We’re showing that all of our hard work and efforts have been figuratively and physically dumped in the trash because of this fire,” said Alfonso Leon, a Richmond resident and Urban Tilth member.
The rally was a joint organization effort by Urban Tilth as well as environmental watchdog groups Communities for a Better Environment (CBE) and Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN). The groups brought multiple city leaders out to address the crowd, including Eduardo Martinez, a candidate for city council. Martinez said that this incident is an indication that Chevron needs to change its ways because it is causing harm to the community. “The Chevron fire reminds us that we’re living next to an environmental time bomb,” said Martinez.
Andres Soto, Richmond organizer for CBE, said that his group wants Chevron to publicly disclose the causes of the refinery fire, cover the community’s health costs associated with the fire and hire local workers to replace older equipment. “We want to ensure they pay for all the damage they’ve done, not just today, but in the future, too,” Soto said.
Many in attendance at the rally said that their concerns extended beyond Chevron to the community warning system, which is run by Contra Costa County. There are sirens in the industrial corridor of the county that they activate when an emergency, like Monday night’s fire, requires a shelter-in-place instruction. In addition to the sirens, residents in the affected areas are supposed to receive calls at home notifying them of the incident. Media outlets are notified en masse. However, it is up to Chevron to notify the county when an incident occurs so that the alarm can be activated.
“That warning system hasn’t worked since day one,” said Henry Clark, a resident of North Richmond and the head of the West County Toxics Coalition. Clark said he, like others in his neighborhood, did not receive a robo-call at home like they should have and that the sirens didn’t go off until well after black smoke was rising in the air.
During Monday night’s fire residents, were directed to “shelter-in-place,” meaning they should go home (or to the nearest building they can enter), stay inside, close and lock all windows and doors, turn off ventilation systems and seal with tape or damp towels any gaps in windows or doors. But not everyone in Richmond has a safe indoor place to go in emergencies. “I am out here because there was not a plan for the homeless living outside,” said Yvonne Nair, founder and president of Saffron Strand, a local organization that helps homeless people in Richmond find employment. “We are hoping that from this process we can develop a safe place for those who live outside during these types of emergencies.”
After the rally, the auditorium’s doors opened at 6 pm and the seats filled up quickly. Several hundred people from Richmond and surrounding cities settled in to face the panel Chevron had gathered to address them. Teams of reporters buzzed around the room snapping pictures and videotaping the audience and the panel.
Chevron convened six experts to address the crowd: Bill Lindsay, Richmond City Manager; Dr. Wendel Brunner, Director of Public Health for Contra Costa Health Services; Randy Sawyer, Director of Hazardous Materials Programs in Contra Costa County; Jeff McKay, Deputy Air Pollution Control Officer at Bay Area Air Quality Management; Nigel Hearne, General Manager at Chevron’s Richmond refinery and Katherine Hearne, Senior Project manager at Community Awareness and Emergency Response Department of Contra Costa County.
Joan Davis, president and CEO of the Richmond Community Foundation, a non-profit through which people can donate to various organizations in Richmond, facilitated the conversation, which often meant trying to keep the peace with upset and impassioned audience members. The panelists came up one after another to make a brief statement to the audience before the meeting was opened up for questions.
Davis started the conversation by welcoming everyone and then asking people in the audience to stand up (“quietly, very quietly”) if they were feeling the emotions she called out. “Those feeling scared, please stand up,” Davis said, and a few people did. “Those feeling angry, please stand up,” she continued, and nearly everyone in the auditorium rose. The audience did not follow the “quietly” instruction and the sounds of their anger filled the air as they shouted and yelled.
First up to the podium was Nigel Hearne, General Manager at Chevron’s Richmond refinery. “I offer my apology for the disruption and concern this event has caused the community. Hopefully this is seen as the first right step,” said Hearne amidst boos and jeers from the crowd.
Bill Lindsay, Richmond City Manager, spoke about the city’s commitment to research and improving the community notification systems. “We also know we have work to do on the community notification system. We need to look closely at the city’s roles and make ourselves better and more effective at safety. I am going to listen very closely for your input tonight,” Lindsay said.
Randy Sawyer, Director of Hazardous Materials Programs in Contra Costa, listed all of the ways Contra Costa Health Services responded to the incident. He said that county officials were notified at 6:37 pm on Monday night about the fire and they sprang into action. “A Hazmat team went out to test the air quality. We also fielded a lot of media calls throughout the night,” said Sawyer.
He also said that by Thursday at 5 pm Chevron must present him with a thorough analysis of what was emitted during the fire.
Dr. Wendel Brunner, Director of Public Health for Contra Costa Health Services, was the most well received speaker of the night, and the only one on who came close to criticizing Chevron. “It’s been quite a while since I had to come out and explain to an audience like this one the long-term health effects, but it hasn’t been long enough,” Brunner said, raising his voice at the end to emphasize his point.
Brunner said that by 5pm Tuesday, hospitals in the area had seen 949 patients for health issues such as trouble breathing and irritated throats related to the refinery fire and the immense black cloud of particulate matter it sent into the air above Richmond.
Following Brunner, Katherine Hearne with the Community Awareness and Emergency Response Department of Contra Costa County and Jeff McKay from the Bay Area Air Quality Management District described their agencies’ multi-pronged approach to notifying residents of emergencies like the refinery fire and ensuring their safety following an event.
McKay said his department supported the first responders and started measuring particulates immediately. “We were on the scene right away collecting air samples and we have sampling that’s going to go on for a little while,” said McKay.
Hearne said that the community awareness system worked as planned by notifying residents via siren, telephone and most importantly—she stressed—by notices to media outlets. “Our constant challenge is to reach out to the community. [The notification system] is only as effective as what you understand about how it works and where you’re supposed to go,” she said. She also recommended that people sign up their cell phone for alerts, turn on the radio or TV during emergencies and check social media.
Frustrated, audience members did not want to hear that they should sign up for notification systems or follow a department on Facebook and Twitter for information. “That’s not our job!” cried out several people. “I don’t have a computer!” others shouted.
The event was scheduled to go until 8pm, but the speakers decided to extend it past 8:30. During the last two hours they responded to the audience members’ questions and comments. The line to speak wrapped around the room, and each person was given liberal time to ask questions, or—as was the case most of the time—just vent.
Before the first speaker in line for the microphone had a chance to talk, a man who would only identify himself as “an Occupy protestor” rushed the stage yelling for Chevron to get out of Richmond. The protestor brought a large sign with him that read, “CHEVRON OUT OF RICHMOND,” and sat on the stage in front of Nigel Hearne.
“I don’t care how many police officers you surround me with, I will not be quiet,” yelled the protestor as Richmond officers from around the room moved in closer to the stage. Davis, the moderator, asked him to please sit down so and allow for everyone to have a chance to speak.
Kenneth Davis, a Richmond resident who was waiting to speak, wasted no time in indicating where his allegiance laid. “I don’t blame him. I feel like he does,” said Davis of the Occupy protestor.
Most of the speakers were highly critical of Chevron and accused Nigel Hearne of withholding information regarding how the fire started and what was released into the air. “I am going to speak to the audience, not to the panel, because I don’t want to justify the corporate PR happening up there,” said a speaker who did not provide his name.
Urban Tilth members rolled the wilted remains of their gardens to the front of the auditorium for everyone to see. Standing in a row in front of the stage, they held up protest signs and produce they worried had been ruined because of the fire.
“It this contaminated?” an Urban Tilth member demanded of the panel. “What was released yesterday?”
Randy Sawyer, the county’s Hazardous Materials Director, said his team is still testing the emissions from the fire and directed everyone to check back later on the Contra Costa Health Services website for more information.
Urban Tilth members started chanting, “Tell us now! Tell us now!” Hundreds around the room added their voices to the chant and the floor rumbled and shook as they stomped their feet in unison.
But not everyone was critical of the panel. Mark Wassberg, a Richmond resident, admonished residents for not being more thankful of Chevron’s presence. “I worked at Chevron for about ten years. Every morning we had a safety meeting. … Chevron built Richmond,” he yelled in over the booing and catcalls of hundreds who disagreed.
At times the tension in the room came close to boiling over. Protestors took over using the Occupy-style microphone method of one person speaking at a normal level and those around the person repeating what was said in unison. For their part, the panel gave great leeway to the audience, and Davis thanked people again and again for speaking. “You are heard,” she said over and over.
Nigel Hearne was called to answer questions ranging from what his salary is (which he refused to answer) to why he wasn’t relating the cause of the accident. “I have a lot of sympathy for what everyone is feeling in this room. I can promise you, I don’t have any idea what caused this incident,” he said.
At about 8:30, with many people still in line for the microphone, Davis announced they were not going to take any more questions. The remaining audience members—about half of the crowd had left by that point—booed as the panelists left the stage. Nigel Hearne and a couple of other panelists were escorted out by police through the back of the auditorium as protesters rushed up to yell at them.
Brunner, Sawyer and Lindsay stayed behind to answer questions from residents. Brunner said that vegetables grown in Richmond are safe to eat, despite any particulate residue that may have fallen on them, if they’re cleaned off with soap and water. Lindsay said the city would investigate how it can work with Contra Costa County officials to improve the warning system.
The remaining audience members dissipated as they realized that the people they most wanted to speak with—Chevron’s representatives—were already gone.
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