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Chemicals lingered in the air above Richmond after the Chevron refinery fire. (Photo by: Tawanda Kanhema)

How to make Richmond’s air cleaner? BAAQMD turns to residents for answers

on March 17, 2022

Like many Richmond residents, Jim Zahradka starts his morning commute with a ride across the Richmond-San Rafael bridge. But while others drive, Zahradka, an avid cyclist, pedals his way up and over the 325-foot tall structure. 

Rumored plans to close the bridge’s bike lane, which opened in 2019, so more vehicle traffic can pass into Marin County were just one concern discussed at a Virtual Town Hall held by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District on Tuesday evening. The meeting, attended by dozens and led by the Community Emission Reduction Plan Steering Committee, set out to discuss issues and potential solutions for air pollution in West Contra Costa County, with community testimony about air pollution at the center. 

“Dealing with air pollution is critical,” said Willie J. Robinson of El Sobrante. A former member of the steering committee, Robinson shared concerns about the air quality in North Richmond, where he lived for decades and still spends much of his time. But he’s also worried about the local economy. 

“You’ve got to walk this line delicately,” he said in a breakout group. “Those working here need to be gainfully employed. So if we just remove everything,” referring to the refineries and chemical plants which employ a large number of residents, “there are also consequences.” 

Chevron refinery flaring events raise air pollution concerns

While the city transitions away from an economy built around fuel and chemical production, Robinson fears the complex data about pollution happening right now may be inaccessible to the residents who need it most. “How do we bridge the gap so people with respiratory issues know what to do?” he asked the group. 

A 2018 Contra Costa Health Services study shows asthma rates in the county are higher on average than in the rest of California, and are especially high for children and Black residents. 

Robinson hopes the committee will push for tools to better inform the public about the environment they live in. He also wants local schools to teach students about the effects of prolonged exposure to air pollution.

Marisol Cantú, a third generation Richmond resident and activist with the Richmond Listening Project, which is aligned with the Richmond Progressive Alliance, said her group is focusing its efforts on local high schools and Contra Costa College. But, she added, the group is also reaching out to residents, especially those near the Chevron Richmond Refinery, a longtime source of pollution in the city.

“We have listened to people living near Chevron and we are working to move for a fossil-fuel-free Richmond,” she said during public comments.

Erika Ramirez, a Steering Committee member who led the Spanish-language breakout group, raised concerns about pollution from freeways and the possible loss of a bike to add another lane of traffic on the bridge. 

Zahradka shares those concerns and said he hopes the city of Richmond and Contra Costa County will seek funds from the federal infrastructure plan to electrify school buses and move the county away from fossil fuels.

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