Toxic tour

Drive through one of the West Coast’s deadliest neighborhoods


Point Richmond. Photo: Chris Clarke
Point Richmond. Photo: Chris Clarke

“Contra Costa is a potential Bhopal,” activist Denny Larson grimaces as his red Subaru roars west on Interstate 580. Large, easygoing, and genial, Larson warns, “We are now entering Richmond, and we may not return alive.” His tone is melodramatic, but he’s not entirely joking.

Between 1989 and 1997, 55 major industrial accidents – roughly one every two months – rocked Contra Costa County, across the bay from San Francisco. For years, residents have complained bitterly about the seemingly endless flares, flames, eruptions, and blasts that sting their eyes and shower their rooftops with chemical dust.

Particularly hard hit are the cities of Richmond and Rodeo. There are currently around 400 pollution sites in Richmond and “it goes up all the time,” Larson informs. “You’ll notice there are no big smokestacks chugging out pollution,” Larson observes. “Some companies have gotten very clever.” With a nod, Larson indicates one faceless structure on the left that sports a pleasant-looking greenhouse. “That’s Zeneca,” he reveals. “They manufacture pesticides that are known to cause cancer. And they also make cancer treatment drugs. It’s a full-service cancer-cluster.”

In 1995, attorney Ed Masry and Erin Brockovich were sickened by fumes from a Unocal refinery near the homes of some clients in Rodeo. When federal officials insisted their air samples showed no problem, an angry Masry hired an engineer to build a cheap air-testing device that anyone could use.

Larson helped Masry put those first buckets into the hands of Contra Costa residents and, in 1996, he convinced the EPA to fund the first Bucket Brigade with a $260,000 grant. On March 25, 1999, the buckets were used to sample the air during a blaze at a Chevron unit. They’ve been bagging evidence ever since.

“Air monitoring is not easy,” Larson admits. “At first, it was thought that community members couldn’t do it.” Industry tried to dismiss the brigades as alarmist and unreliable, and demanded official tests to discredit the bucketeers. The tests wound up confirming the citizens’ sampling results.

Larson proceeded to introduce the buckets to refinery communities in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Louisiana. There are now 24 bucket brigades across the US. Larson tends to work with each new group for the first three years “to get them going,” then lets the local groups take over the monitoring chores.

Into the heart of Richmond
“North Richmond is on the front line of chemical assaults,” Larson barks, steering off 580’s concrete swath and decelerating down the Garrard turnoff. After 18 years of local activism, Larson knows Richmond’s history intimately. In 2001, he hatched the Refinery Reform Campaign (a project of the Global Community Monitor, or GCM) to lead a national campaign to clean up America’s oil refineries and reduce US dependence on fossil fuels. Since starting GCM, Larson has introduced air-sampling buckets around the world.

Larson opens a map of Richmond dotted with black skulls. “Every site represents a toxic waste, air pollution site, or chemical spill,” he explains. “There are probably 10 or 50 more that could be visited.” A full Toxic Tour can take seven hours. Our quick course will take four.

Downwind from Chevron’s refinery, we move through downtown Richmond’s blocks of empty buildings. What once was a jewelry store is now a church. We pass a burned-out car and come upon a police bust. This is the Bay Area’s “most depressed, lowest income, highest unemployment community.” African-Americans have dominated the population since the war-industry boom of the 1940s, but today, Asians and Latinos have become a significant part of Richmond’s ethnic mosaic. Most oil refinery air pollution victims inhabit low-income, minority communities.

Thousands of rusting, contaminated barrels leak poison at Myers Drum in Ricmond. Photo: Chris Clarke
Thousands of rusting, contaminated barrels leak poison at Myers Drum in Ricmond.
Photo: Chris Clarke

“I do these tours about once a month,” Larson explains, “and every time, I find something new. On the last tour, there was a ‘For Sale’ sign up at Drew Scrap Metal, a Superfund site. I contacted Henry Clark at West County Toxics Coalition (WCTC). Henry raised some questions and the sign disappeared. I suspect the site could have been sold and developed without the state ever knowing about it.”

Sure enough, when Larson pulls up at the Drew Scrap Metals site at Seventh and Castro, there’s a surprise: The “For Sale” sign is back up. Approaching the fenced-off lot, Larson explains how the previous owners used to dump scrap metal, chemicals, and batteries directly on the ground. Lead, cadmium, and other heavy metals seeped into the soil, and the African-American families who lived next door all slowly died of cancer. The county tested the vegetables in a nearby family garden and found dangerous concentrations of lead, cadmium, and other heavy metals. After the lot was declared a Superfund site, the poisoned soil was covered with “clean dirt” and capped with asphalt. Unfortunately, a stream runs alongside the property, so the capped chemicals simply drained into the creek.

“Whether that’s a cleanup or a cover-up is debatable,” Larson snorts. “This was the first site in California where they tried [cover-and-cap] and got away with it.” Cover-and-cap soon became a model for other states. Today, the warning signs on the chain link fence surrounding this Superfund site are weathered and unreadable. If this site is ever sold, Larson suggests, the owner should be required to repay the state for the clean-up.

At Second and Nevin, a small boy stands on the stoop of a house with a broken window, staring impassively as Larson parks. The Electro-Formatting building sits directly across the street from a row of homes. Here, on August 22, 1992, a tank ruptured and released a cloud of nitric acid that blanketed 20 neighborhood blocks and sent more than 100 people to the hospital.

The next stop is General Chemical. Ten steps from where Larson has parked, workers behind a metal gate are unloading a chemical tank car. On July 26, 1993, a preventable industrial accident at General Chemical caused “our closest thing to a Bhopal.” Workers were having trouble unloading a car filled with oleum. They were told to heat the thick material to 120°F to get it to flow.

Unfortunately, Larson relates, they had to use a gauge that only went to 50°F. “It went around six times while the workers weren’t looking.” The resulting explosion emitted a choking cloud that spread more than 17 miles and sent 25,000 residents to local hospitals.

ChevronTexaco’s output
California is right behind Texas as the state with the greatest concentration of refineries – five major refineries in the Bay Area alone. Eighty percent of all US oil refineries operate in violation of the Clean Air Act, exposing more than 67 million people nationwide to the refineries’ effluvia.

With 47,000 employees in more than 180 countries, ChevronTexaco is the world’s fifth largest integrated energy company. In Richmond, the company processes more than 300,000 barrels of oil a day. In an average year, the refinery pours a million pounds of toxics into the air and 500,000 pounds into the bay, making it one of the top five chemical polluters in California. For years, Chevron dumped benzene, toluene, xylenes, chromium, lead, vanadium, nickel, and volatile hydrocarbons onto five “landfarms” installed a mile upwind from homes, an elementary school, and a playground. Of the 22 public housing projects in Contra Costa County’s “Gasoline Alley,” six are at high risk from exposure to chemical pollutants. The minority communities of Triangle Court and Las Deltas sit directly downwind from the refinery.

Between 1991 and 1999, the refinery racked up 10 serious chemical releases. On March 25, 1999, an explosion sent 18,000 pounds of corrosive airborne sulfur dioxide over the Triangle Court neighborhood. The smoke killed trees, burned the fur off squirrels, and sent hundreds of temporarily blinded, vomiting residents to hospitals.

That same year a Chevron spokesperson told the press: “We would never do anything to intentionally create an unsafe situation” and, furthermore, “there hasn’t been anything identified as far as there being any significant risk posed by this refinery.”

Polluters spend millions on
lawers, consultants, and
PR rather than dealing
directly with the
they put at risk.

Numerous health studies disagree. One 1985 federal health research institute study cited “a strong positive association between the degree of residential exposure and death rates from cardiovascular disease and cancer,” particularly in Richmond and Rodeo.

“It’s no accident that dangerous fires, explosions, and toxic spills continue to increase when refineries are calling the shots and monitoring themselves,” Larson charges. A “tax on toxics” would help, but since ChevronTexaco and similar firms are the city’s major employers, Larson fumes, “the city won’t even approve liability insurance.” Chevron contends that taxing industry will drive away jobs and business. Larson’s response: “The last time I looked, state auto insurance doesn’t seem to keep people from driving their cars.”

“The 32 local neighborhood councils are a real cool part of Richmond,” Larson smiles. “And there are more churches than any other kind of establishment – a church on every corner, sometimes two. That’s a very positive thing in the community. But the power of Chevron is so great….” At one point, Chevron even argued that it should be exempt from monitoring because its emissions were “trade secrets.”

Politically, North Richmond remains a “jurisdictional nightmare… a community divided, literally, in half,” says Larson. “The people have no redress with the local mayor or city council.”

The view from Richmond Parkway
With the smokestacks of Chevron’s refinery visible, we cross Wildcat Creek en route to Myers Drum, a rehabilitation station for 55-gallon drums. Myers flushes chemical wastes from used drums and burns the residues in an aging incinerator – a major source of toxic emissions including dioxins. Attempts to shut it down continue.

“There are 10,000 drums at this site. On a warm day, you can hear these drum tops popping like popcorn. It almost sounds like a steel drum concert,” says Larson. Most of these drums come from Chevron.

Larson circles another Superfund site filled with cargo containers and junked cars, and gestures to a cement berm rising inside the grounds. “See how that’s been raised and capped?” he prompts. “That’s ‘cause it’s chock full of PCBs – that’s got some real nasties in it.” A crude warning spray-painted on an adjacent wall reads: “No Loitering. No Dumping.” Larson spots the sign and guffaws: “Sure! The dumping’s already happened.” Palm trees planted about every 20 feet along the security wall to beautify the site are sadly stunted; some have died.

The construction of the Richmond Parkway blocked the sight of the refinery, giving developers a chance to build new communities. A cement wall rings one brand-new housing development. “I call this FlareView,” Larson wisecracks. “These homes sell for $200,000, can you believe it? I don’t know what that wall’s supposed to keep out – surely not the pollution.”

It’s a short drive from FlareView’s fortifications to Chevron’s perimeter fence. Beyond the chain-link fence topped with razorwire sits the remains of a vast open-air waste-pond. Henry Clark of the West County Toxics Coalition remembers how, on some mornings, the leaves on the trees “would be burned crisp.” The community rallied and the toxic lake was drained and closed.

A man and his bucket
Larson squints into the sun toward the refinery. “Along the hillside you can see the big smoke coming from the cooling towers. The round spheres are for the lighter chemicals like propanes and butanes. The large tanks on the hillside hold everything from crude oil to partial product.”

Larson lifts a five-gallon bucket from his car. “This is the poor man’s Summa container,” he winks. “It costs $75.” (The EPA version runs $2,000.) Larson’s bucket is a translucent blue model that he brought back from a recent Bucket Brigade trip to India. Removing the lid, he twists open an intake valve and begins drawing in air. After about three minutes, Larson spins the valve shut and removes the bag. It’s now ready to be shipped to Columbia Analytical, where 81 different compounds can be detected. Larson pops the hatch on his Subaru and uncovers a copy of the Contra Costa Times, with a front-page chart showing circled danger zones for residents living near Richmond’s industrial sites. The killing zone for an accident at the General Chemical and Dow Chemical plants extends 25 miles in all directions.

According to the nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project, 29 states have loopholes that allow “accidental” releases of pollution to exceed Clean Air Act limits. Although these “accidental” releases generate more pollution than the “routine” emissions released by the plants, they are not recorded by the Toxics Release Inventory. “The first time it happens it’s an accident; the second time it’s a crime,” Larson says. He believes these so-called “upset releases” pose a major threat to the health of the neighborhood.

“Eighty percent of the year
the prevailing winds blow
the pollution east, directly
over Richmond.”

“Sometimes the upsets or explosions go on for over a week,” says Clark. “The daily emissions that my community is bombarded with – the dioxins, benzene, and xylene emissions – are dangerous and deadly.”

Activist groups are calling on the Bay Area Air Quality Management District to create a centralized, public electronic reporting system for industrial emissions.

Across the tracks
Larson heads down Chevron Way past the refinery’s main gate, accelerates under the freeway, and heads west toward Point Richmond. “We’re now upwind from Chevron,” Larson says. “Eighty percent of the year the prevailing winds blow the pollution east, directly over Richmond.”

Spotting a tanker ship disgorging oil at a Chevron pier, Larson recalls another hard-fought victory, when WCTC and the Inland Boatman’s Union convinced Richmond to require vapor recovery at all marine loading ports. “First it was a local ordinance, then a state ordinance, then a national regulation.”

“There’s no such thing as a local victory,” Larson explains. He illustrates this truism with a cautionary tale. In 1985, after a long campaign, the Richmond community succeeded in preventing the construction of a benzene plant. On a trip to Philadelphia, Larson overheard some community activists complaining about a new benzene plant located in South Philly. “When was it built?” Larson asked with a sense of foreboding. “In 1985,” the locals told him. “They said they built it here because they couldn’t get it built in Richmond.”

Despite the hazards, Larson believes that Contra Costa could become “a beacon for environmental justice” with new policies in place to protect poor and minority residents from the rising risk of industrial harm. This would require county planners to study environmental and human impacts of industrial projects – and plan accordingly.

We leave Point Richmond and head back across the freeway. As Larson drives past Perez Elementary, workers are busy spiffing up the property. Situated directly downwind of Chevron, the school has been evacuated and closed many times. An incinerator used to billow smoke from toxic waste into the schoolyard. “We could get quite a whiff,” Larson remembers. The children rank in the bottom one percent in the state’s test scores. For 30 years, Chevron’s billowing smokestacks sent plumes of smoke over the school’s playground creating what Larson called a “powerful visual.” Ultimately, the image proved too powerful for Chevron’s comfort. “That’s one of the good things about the Tour. Some of the problems no longer exist: We shut down the incinerator!” In another victory, a Chevron fertilizer plant that stored two million pounds of anhydrous ammonia 500 feet from North Richmond homes was closed in July 1995, thanks to community pressure.As Larson pulls up alongside the Center for Health, Cynthia Jordan crosses the street with a smile and a shout. “How you doin’, Cynthia?” Larson responds with a grin and a hug. “Still unemployed, but I’m doin’ all right,” Jordan replies. “Cynthia was one of our original bucket brigaders,” Larson smiles.

Chevron/Texaco’s Richmond refinery. Photo: Chris Clarke
Chevron/Texaco’s Richmond refinery. Photo: Chris Clarke

The Center for Health came about as the result of “a long community campaign.” It contains a library, computer room, meeting room, and a community bulletin board for posting important health and political information. Dow supplied half of the funds. Chevron had promised $2 million for an existing clinic but, when the incinerator was forced to close, Chevron withdrew its offer. “We had to undertake a three-yearbattle to get [Chevron to reallocate] the money to the new Health Center.”

The corporate mindset
On the drive back to Berkeley, Larson passes piles of toxic scrap metal looming over a Richmond port. Could it contain radioactive tank armor from Iraq? “We’ll probably never know.” Larson pulls up behind a Safety-Clean tanker truck. “He’s on his way to pick up some toxics,” Larson explains. “That vehicle is essentially a Hoover.” Once the toxics are vacuumed into the truck, “they’ll turn around and drive the load back to Richmond.” All toxic roads lead to Richmond.

It mystifies Larson that polluters will spend millions on lawyers, consultants, and PR, instead of dealing directly with the communities they put at risk. “Most refinery toxic air pollution is from product leaks in equipment, not smokestacks.” Larson complains that the companies would rather spend millions churning out press releases than buying better valves.

Take action: More information on Denny Larson and GCM’s Refinery Reform Campaign is available at Watch Gar’s nine-minute movie, “Taking the Toxic Tour.” This 27Mb movie can be viewed here.

The corporate mindset always seems to prefer the cosmetic change over the fundamental shift. Larson recalls the Chevron executive who vowed to create a “stealth” refinery that “you can’t see, hear, or smell.” Chevron spent $1 million on a new reddish-brown color scheme that masked the massive metal holding tanks squatting on the hillside. Unfortunately, the dark paint caused the tanks to absorb more heat, which caused more evaporation, which caused more pollution. Chevron never got around to addressing the problems of noise and stench. “They don’t want to deal on a human, personal level. That’s why someone like Margie Richard is so effective.” Richard, the first African-American to win the Goldman Environmental Prize, used one of Larson’s buckets to prove that Shell had poisoned her Louisiana community. “Margie insists on dealing with these people on a personal level,” Larson chuckles. “She’ll look these guys right in the eye and say: ‘Don’t talk to me as a company CEO. Talk to me as a neighbor.’ That really gets to them.”

That, and the sight of a five-gallon plastic bucket.

Gar Smith is editor emeritus of Earth Island Journal, editor of The-Edge, and associate editor of Common Ground magazine.

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