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India, Chevron and monitoring pollution after toxic disasters

on March 25, 2013

Shweta Narayan, one of India’s leading environmentalists, paid the Bay Area a visit last week and presented information about the importance of environmental monitoring when it comes to toxic disasters. For the past nine years, Narayan, and Global Community Monitor, a group based in El Cerrito, have collaborated on air pollution awareness campaigns in India, where she coordinates Community Environmental Monitoring. Narayan spoke at the Natural Resources Defense Council in San Francisco and Center for Environmental Health in Oakland.

“It’s absolutely the same what people in India and people in Richmond go through,” she said about working with communities affected by toxins. “No industry wants to share information. And they don’t want to take action until somebody is after them—which is mostly neighborhood communities.”

Narayan said even if the air smelled like rotten cabbage or eggs, local governments in India wouldn’t respond to public protests because protestors were considered liars, not scientists. “They say science is neutral,” she said. “I don’t think science is neutral. Science is in the pockets of whoever has the money. Unfortunately, poor communities don’t have the money.”

So for 14 weeks, Narayan systematically organized people who live near pollution sites, like the one in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, where in 1984 more than 500,000 people were exposed to methyl isocyanate gas. They recorded 36 different types of odors using Global Community Monitor’s bucket brigade, a way of taking air samples. Because the residents recorded this information, the government had to pay attention, Narayan said.

Here in Richmond, Denny Larson, the executive director of Global Community Monitor, said that because of last year’s refinery fire and a separate tax settlement, Chevron is finally going to have a good air monitoring system. By the end of the first week of April, Chevron’s work plan for the Richmond Community Air Quality Monitoring Program should be in place, he said. The locations of the air monitoring stations are the Natatorium in Point Richmond, Atchison Village Community Center, and Shields Reid Community Center in North Richmond.

In addition to three community air-monitoring stations, Chevron will have three fence line monitor locations that shoot invisible lasers into the air that detect Chevron-generated air pollutants, Larson said. “There will be a real-time website relaying information to the public,” he said. “The main purpose is to give the community the right to know in a transparent fashion what [Chevron is] emitting. From there, various policies and actions can be developed when there are problems.”

Although Chevron is taking steps to monitor what it emits, Larson said the company is not doing enough to reduce its emissions. The environmental non-profit director said Richmond’s oil refinery should also invest more in health assistance programs, as British Petroleum did in Los Angeles with a mobile van program that provides care for people with asthma. “Clearly, Chevron has a health impact on Richmond,” he said.

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