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Fire blankets the sky on a sunny day in 2012.

Urban agriculture organizations want their soil tested after Chevron refinery fire

on August 24, 2012

After the Chevron refinery fire sent plumes of black smoke laden with chemicals into the air, Urban Tilth, one of Richmond’s urban agriculture organizations, wants the soil it uses to grow food tested for heavy metals.

Though the Contra Costa Health Services say Richmond-grown fruits and vegetables are safe to eat and that they don’t expect any impact from the fire on soil or compost, Doria Robinson, the executive director of Urban Tilth, said she worries about heavy metals like lead, arsenic, or mercury in the soil.

Other organic compounds that entered the air during the fire, like chloroform and ethanol, can be washed away, Robinson said, but heavy metals that can fall into the soil are particularly dangerous and hard to remove.

“That is a whole other bag of worms,” she said. “You need such a small quantity to make a huge impact, especially on a child’s body. That is my biggest fear.”

With Richmond’s long industrial history, there are already some heavy metals in the soil, said Wendel Brunner, the director of public health for Contra Costa Health Services.

Testing would offer no way to tell if the heavy metals were present before the fire or because of the fire. And since the smoke rose several thousand feet and was swept east, very little ash or debris fell on Richmond, Brunner said.

“From the fire,” he said, “no, I have no concerns about heavy metals in the soil.”

Regardless of the refinery fire’s role in contamination, eating produce grown in areas with a history of a presence of heavy metals in Richmond soil is not advisable, Brunner said. Before starting a garden, he advises residents to call the Contra Costa County Heath Services to determine contamination levels.

Some of Urban Tilth’s adult volunteers said they feel safe washing or peeling the fruits and vegetable before consumption, but Robinson said she doesn’t feel comfortable giving any produce to Richmond families with children until the soil is tested, since heavy metals can act as neurotoxins in developing bodies.

Urban Tilth runs eight community gardens in Richmond, including one at Richmond High School and one at Kennedy High School. All of the gardens produce several thousand pounds of produce each year.

Normally Urban Tilth distributes some of that produce to Richmond families who don’t have access to healthy food. But because of Robinson’s fear that more heavy metals are present in the soil, she plans to stop distribution in the fall and early winter, which she estimates would mean keeping 2,000-3,000 pounds of produce.

Robinson contacted scientists at the UC Davis campus who would be willing to run the necessary tests on the soil. She said she wants Chevron to fund the tests.

Fifty-seven other local gardeners and urban agriculture farmers have voiced concern along with Urban Tilth.

Robinson said she has not contacted Chevron yet and that before she files a claim she wants to be sure that if tests come back showing an excess presence of heavy metals in the soil, Chevron will pay for the cleanup as well as the tests.

“We want to be sure what we are asking for,” she said, “before we start asking.”

Cleaning up heavy metals is expensive and labor-intensive. The old soil would need to be removed and replaced with nonlocal soil.

Until the claims are filed, Chevron spokesperson Melissa Ritchie said she wants residents to refer to the Contra Costa County Health Services statement.

“If you live in an area that was affected by the refinery fire, you can wash fruits and vegetables from your garden with soap and a mild detergent (like liquid dish soap),” the statement read. “Washing your fruits and vegetables will remove any particulates that might have been on the surface from smoke. You also can peel off the outer layer of lettuce or peel your fruit.”


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