August 6 marked the one-year anniversary of the 2012 explosion and fire at a Chevron refinery in Richmond, Calif., that sent an estimated 15,000 people to the hospital with respiratory problems.
Organized by a coalition of labor, public interest, indigenous, and climate justice groups, approximately 2,800 protesters marched on Aug. 3 from the city’s BART station to the Chevron refinery demanding that the oil company stop processing tar sands oil and address local residents’ concerns about pollution and plant safety.
In an organized act of civil disobedience, demonstrators wearing white armbands sat down in front of the refinery gates. Of the protesters who participated, 208 of them were arrested, cited for trespassing, and then released.
“The community in Richmond is on a daily basis suffering from increased risk of different kinds of cancers as well as very high rates of asthma… It’s really hard as a nurse to see a patient struggling to breathe because a company with the resources that Chevron has chooses willfully not to put forth the resources to make that plant safe,” said Katy Romer, a nurse from Oakland, as she marched toward the refinery along with a group of her colleagues from the National Nurses Union.
The company’s 2,900-acre facility in Richmond is the third largest oil refinery in California, processing 240,000 barrels of crude oil a day. For years, groups like Communities for a Better Environment (CBE) and the West County Toxics Coalition have complained that Chevron, Richmond’s largest employer, has not done enough to respond to concerns about area pollution.
“The Chevron Richmond refinery is the single largest producer of greenhouse gases in California,” said Andrés Soto of CBE. “These gases travel over the Carquinez Strait and into the Central Valley, which is intensely polluted.”
For many, Chevron’s apparent disregard of the people of Richmond, who happen to be largely economically depressed people of color, amounts to environmental racism.
“Chevron has not been good to the community here,” said retired Richmond resident Lipo Chathanasak, a Laotian of Khmu ethnicity and a member of the Asian Pacific Environmental Network who lives a quarter mile from the refinery.
“My number one complaint is the pollution, and then the greed,” he said. “They only care about money… but today we are here to tell them that their profit is killing us and they have to stop.”
The day before the protest, the City of Richmond filed a lawsuit against Chevron seeking damages for the city and its residents. The suit claimed that the pipeline leak that led to the explosion was “a continuation of years of neglect, lax oversight and corporate indifference to necessary safety inspection and repairs.”
Chevron’s response, calling the lawsuit “a waste of the city’s resources and yet another example of its failed leadership,” is a measure of just how sour relations between the company and city have become.
“What Chevron says they are doing and what they are actually doing are not the same thing,” Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin, who participated in the protest, told the demonstrators gathered in front of the refinery gates.
Some marchers carried copies of full-page advertisements run in Bay Area newspapers by the Ecuadorian government on Saturday morning. “In the fight against Chevron, the people of Ecuador and the people of Richmond can deploy the most devastating weapon ever invented. The truth,” read one ad: a message of solidarity from a suffering nation to a suffering city.
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