Letter from the US: Chevron targetted by 'Summer Heat' protests

One year after a huge explosion and fire at the Chevron oil refinery in Richmond, California, there was a demonstration of thousands of people directed against the oil giant on August 3.

Richmond is part of the sprawling San Francisco Bay Area, where I live.

A significant aspect of the action was that it brought together environmentalists from the Bay Area and nationally, and activists from the Richmond community.

From the environmentalists’ side, the protest was part of a wave of “Summer Heat” actions organised by 350.org. The “350” refers to the estimate of 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that scientists say is the upper limit to avoid severe global warming.

Richmond is predominately non-white. Latinos make up 39% of the population, and another 27% are African American and other people of colour.

For years, people in the Richmond community have been battling the environmental racism of Chevron, the main industrial plant in the city. Along with many other chemical and polluting industries, the plant's wanton spewing of toxins disproportionately affects the areas where non-whites live.

The fire and explosion at Chevron last year brought this truth home to hundreds of thousands throughout the Bay Area. The catastrophe happened as a result of deliberate negligence (cost cutting) on the company’s part that resulted in a ruptured pipeline.

Workers who rushed to the leak in response to this emergency noticed a plume of volatile hydrocarbon gas visible as a shimmering in the air. They knew that an explosion was imminent and fled the scene in the nick of time.

The resulting explosion and subsequent fire spewed a huge cloud of toxic black smoke for hours across Richmond and neighboring cities, visible for miles. In spite of a timely order by city authorities for people to stay indoors, about 15,000 were hospitalised with respiratory problems in the following days.

The coalition that organised the demonstration, a two-mile march that ended with a rally at the refinery, included 350.org, its local supporters and a range of community groups, including the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA).

There were banners and signs reflecting local community issues with the Chevron refinery, as well as those of the national 鉄ummer Heat・ protests: 哲o more toxic hazards, no Keystone XL pipeline, no refining tar sands or fracked crude ・ yes to a just transition from fossil fuels to union jobs and clean energy!”

It also included Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin of the Green Party and other city officials. National leader of 350.org Bill McKibben flew in for the action. He noted that Richmond was the only stop on the “Summer Heat” tour where he received a red-carpet treatment from City Hall.

At the end of the rally, McKibben and about 200 others staged a civil disobedience sit-in on Chevron property.

Speaking at the rally, McKibben said: “The reason that we’re here is that Chevron is a really bad actor. In places where they get their oil, they’re a bad actor.

“Ask the people in Canada fighting their fracking. Ask the people of Ecuador who have had to live with their waste. When they get it here to refine it, they’re a bad actor.

“They sent 15,000 of their neighbors to the hospital. And they are bad, bad actors on this planet. They have 9 billion barrels of oil in their reserves.”

McKibben also applauded the labour contingent on the march, which included unionised nurses, government workers, longshoremen (wharfies), teachers, and communication workers, as well as representatives from Walmart workers seeking to organise. The local coalition appointed an organiser to do labour outreach.

Included among the demonstrators' demands was one supporting better safety standards for the Chevron refinery workers.

Veteran labour activists Steve Early and Suzanne Gordon wrote: “The speakers reflected growing diversity in the local environmental movement. Native-Americans led off, followed by African-Americans, Laotian, and Latino critics of ‘climate chaos’.

“Wearing a black Russian-style fur hat with a small red star on it, West County Toxics Coalition [and National Black Environmental Justice Network] leader Henry Clark ... [drew] cheers when he angrily declared: ‘This ain’t no damn company town. This is the people’s town!’”

Andres Soto of Communities for a Better Environment said: 展e know that we池e the little guys and that they池e the big and powerful multinational corporation ・ in fact an international criminal cartel ・ They have the money power; we have the people power.

“And as long as we continue to organise, continue to bring people out, we know that Chevron ultimately is going to have to deal with us, because we can’t allow them to control our lives here in Richmond.”

Soto led the marshals for the well-organised march and rally.

Health care worker Estelle Schneider told of effects of the fire: “The fire affected primarily people who are older, younger, have chronic diseases or have issues like asthma. So people whose immune system is weaker were greatly affected.

“But, in general, it affected everybody. We saw people come in with difficulty breathing, with a lot of coughing. We saw people whose asthma was exacerbated and who had to get emergency treatment. We saw a lot of kids with respiratory problems. And we saw skin issues.”

Retired Richmond teacher and RPA activist Eduardo Martinez said the school where he taught students with breathing problems had formed an after-school group known as the “asthma club” because they couldn’t take part in regular sports activity.

Asthma and cancer rates are much higher than normal in Richmond’s toxic alley downwind from the refinery and chemical plants.

The day before the demonstration, the City of Richmond filed a lawsuit against Chevron, citing “a continuation of years of neglect, lax oversight and corporate indifference to necessary safety inspection and repairs”.

After last year’s fire, the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration cited Chevron for eleven “willful” safety violations and imposed the largest fine in the agency’s history, US$1 million, that the company is contesting.

As Early and Gordon note, Chevron just posted second quarter profits of $3.37 billion.

Two days after the demonstration, Chevron pleaded no contest to six criminal charges related to the fire and agreed to more oversight over the next few years and to pay $2 million in fines as part of a plea deal with state and county prosecutors.

But no actual people responsible were fined or will face jail.

McLaughlin replied the next day: “The thought of Chevron thinking that $2 million is going to be sufficient in terms of addressing the problems, the ongoing threat that they cause to my community, is outrageous.

“Our city council owes it to the residents of Richmond to pursue this lawsuit, demanding accountability from Chevron.”

McLaughlin also noted that is was “really great on Saturday to join with our allies all over the Bay Area and California coming to Richmond and really making it clear the community of Richmond does not deserve and will not stand for these kinds of toxic releases that impact our health and safety and also impact the sustainability of our planet”.

She also pointed to the support for the demonstration from the Ecuadorian government, which is waging its own battle with Chevron for the truly horrendous environmental disaster it wrought in that country. Leading up to the demonstration, Ecuador bought ads in the local newspapers, saying the people of Ecuador stood with the people of Richmond.

“So we had the spirit of people all over the world with us, and 2500 people marching and rallying in from of the gates of Chevron. And we will definitely will be continuing this momentum, because so much is at stake, and we’re not backing down.”

[Barry Sheppard was a long-time leader of the US Socialist Workers Party and the Fourth International. He recounts his experience in the SWP in a two-volume book, The Party — the Socialist Workers Party 1960-1988, available from Resistance Books. Read more of Sheppard's articles.]