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Early analysis finds “good to moderate” toxic pollutant levels after Chevron fire

on August 9, 2012

Following the Chevron refinery fire that sent a massive cloud of black smoke and particulate matter into the sky over Richmond, North Richmond, and San Pablo, inspectors from the Bay Area Air Quality Management District released a statement on the air quality Wednesday stating that the toxins and pollutants in samples they tested were at a “good-to-moderate” range.

According to the report, the results of the lab analysis of air samples from the Chevron fire showed levels of all but one of the the “potentially toxic pollutants to be well under their reference exposure levels or RELs, and not a significant health concern.” Reference exposure levels are the levels at which sensitive demographic groups, such as the children or the elderly, are expected to experience a negative effect from chemical exposure.

The air district lab tested these air quality samples for a group of 23 compounds, including acetone, ethanol and chloroform, which have been identified by the state of California as toxic air contaminants. The district regularly tests and measures amounts of these compounds through its air monitoring network.

One compound in particular that tested high was acrolein, also known as 2 propenal.  Acrolein is a toxic compound that can cause severe skin and respiratory irritation, and in large doses, death. Regulators found 3.2 parts per billion of acrolein at one measuring station in El Cerrito, which is significantly higher than the normal statewide level of 0.93 parts per billion.

All other compounds tested were below RELs except for acrolein. Overall, the agency said that levels for the compounds tested were similar to normal Bay Area “background” levels and that weather patterns helped the Bay Area avoid much toxic exposure. “While the incident created a lot of black smoke over Richmond, winds close to the ground were low, which allowed the smoke to rise a thousand feet into the air, blowing it eastward into the Central Valley and Sierra Nevada area,” said Kristine Roselius, a spokeswoman for BAAQMD. “We are still monitoring the air quality and performing more tests on the toxicity of the particulate matter which should take about a week.”

Roselius says air quality managers are also still collecting data from filtration systems within a mile of the refinery and expect to have the results in a couple of weeks.

The Contra Costa County Health Services also tested the air for hydrogen sulfate and volatile organic compounds. Tests for both revealed that the levels detected were no higher than usual.

The BAAQMD is planning to further analyze air quality, as well as work on an investigation led by Chevron to find the root cause of the incident. “Chevron has been working closely with the BAAQMD to make sure that the air quality meets federal and state standards,” said Nigel Hearne, general manager of Chevron’s Richmond refinery. “We agree with the air quality findings from inspectors of BAAQMD. In the meantime, residents that are experiencing any trouble breathing should seek medical attention.”

During the town hall meeting hosted by Chevron on Tuesday, Dr. Wendel Brunner, Director of Public Health for Contra Costa Health Services, said that as of Tuesday afternoon, hospitals had seen over 900 patients in the area for health issues related to the fire, mainly irritated throats and respiratory problems.

Local environmental groups, however, were both surprised and skeptical about the BAAQMD study results, particularly because the smoke cloud blanketed Richmond for over 6 hours as emergency response teams and firefighters fought to contain the fire.

“I think they are counting on people that see the report to be scientifically illiterate,” said Mari Rose Taruc, the state organizing director for the Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN), a Bay Area group that works with low income Asian communities to achieve environmental and social justice.  “I’m sure that the real answers are buried in the data. If they are saying that the toxins in the air are well below regulated standards, I think we need to call the standards into question.”

“I was shocked by the results released by BAAQMD,” said Doria Robinson, executive director of Urban Tilth, a non-profit organization in West Contra Costa County that teaches people how to grow their own food. “It’s hard to understand how a petroleum fire of that magnitude could not have significant health concerns compared to a regular day. It’s not like the chemicals from the smoke disappeared. Richmond has polluted ground water that effects our agricultural and fishing community.”

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxic Release Inventory, the Chevron oil refinery is one of three facilities in Contra Costa County that are among the state’s top 10 emitters of toxic chemicals such as ammonia.

In the wake of the fire, members of APEN have issued several demands for Chevron, calling upon the company for a full public disclosure of the cause of the fire and solutions to prevent another incident, as well as asking the company cover the community’s health costs associated with the fire, pay for a new operational warning system, and hire local workers to replace the old refinery equipment with solar installed panels for renewable energy.

Chevron has established a claims process through Crawford and Company, a global claims management company, for members of the surrounding community who wish to make claims for damages. According to Chevron, residents will be compensated for out-of-pocket expenses incurred while seeking medical attention for illnesses caused by the smoke and any injuries or damage to property. The claims hotline is 866-260-7881.

And even if the Bay Area avoided the worst of the chemical exposure, environmentalists say, any toxins released during by the fire are bound to have an effect somewhere. “People are going to continue to get sick if the proper steps aren’t taken to contain these toxic chemicals,” said Taruc when asked about the impact the fire will have on the community. “If the smoke blew over the Central Valley and Sierra Nevada, that’s going to affect the food being produced there when it rains.”

You can read the full BAAQMD test results here.

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