In the early evening of August 6, a series of explosions at the Richmond Chevron oil refinery in the San Francisco Bay Area sparked a huge fire that burned for hours.
The fire sent a huge black cloud that went for miles over densely populated areas. Tens of thousands of residents were ordered to stay in their homes, with windows and doors closed.
Local authorities issued a level three warning, meaning the cloud would cause eye, skin, nose and respiratory sickness.
When the all-clear was given, hundreds of people turned up at hospital emergency rooms. Socialist comrades living in the area report that many more had come forward with health complaints in the days since.
The San Francisco Chronicle said on August 20: “The fire spewed black smoke across Richmond and nearby East Bay communities, sending 11,000 people to clinics and hospitals seeking treatment.”
Chevron set up an office where people could ostensibly be reimbursed for treatment caused by the fire. But they turned away everyone who did not have a receipt from a doctor.
Many of those treated in emergency rooms and clinics do not have health insurance. Many of those affected in the region are poor, so they could not pay or did not get receipts.
The Chevron refinery is in the city of Richmond, one of the many cities and towns that make up the sprawling urban Bay Area. It is on the east side of the Bay, across from San Francisco.
Richmond is about 40% Latino, 30% Black, and 15% Asian, with many Native Americans. The official unemployment rate is about 18%, much higher than in California as a whole.
The Chevron refinery is cited by authorities as the number one emitter of greenhouse gases in the state.
The citizens of Richmond have been fighting Chevron over many issues for many years, led by a grass roots movement called the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA). Richmond's mayor, Gayle McLaughlin, is a member of the Green Party and the RPA.
On August 8, Democracy Now! interviewed McLaughlin and other community leaders. The night before, there was a town meeting with officials from Chevron, at which residents voiced their outrage.
McLaughlin told Democracy Now!: “This situation is totally unacceptable, that every few years we have these disastrous situations with fires and impact on the health of our community. Last night’s [meeting] showed that people were extremely upset…
“So, what I am calling for … is a full transparent investigation not only by Chevron, but by independent sources so that we can get a full analysis of what caused this fire and how we can assure the safety of our community that has suffered for decades of environmental injustice.”
Also on the show was Andres Soto, Richmond organiser for Communities for a Better Environment. Soto gave a feel of what the fire was like for ordinary citizens: “This is one of the most serious environmental disasters that’s happened in the Bay Area.
“We have seen a number of them … but this one was like living in a war zone where you have this toxic cloud overhead and sirens going on. It was a very scary place to be.
“Many people, then, started showing up at hospitals locally. So it is a major trauma to the community.”
For decades, Richmond has been known as a “cancer cluster”. The pollution from Chevron and chemical and other industries is without question the primary cause. But the authorities list “too much smoking” by Richmond residents as the main cause.
Smoking does cause cancer. But smoking also reacts with other carcinogens synergistically.
Soto said of the toxic cloud: “What I understand from the people who study the science, it’s a whole range of hydrocarbons. We suspect that this is some of that high sulfur content dirtier crude from the Canadian tar sands that may have been involved with this.
“So, you know, there is exotic metals. It’s a whole stew of chemicals that were released into the broad environment, and not just in our local community, but throughout the region.”
The long-term effects of the fallout from the cloud cannot be immediately known. I worked in a different refinery in the Bay Area some years ago. Every day as we came to work we passed a sign that said: “Warning! This facility contains known carcinogens.” Among those listed were heavy metals.
Some Chevron refinery workers were belatedly reported as injured, but details are hard to come by. The Chronical reported that many were nearly killed: “Before the fire, a pipe leading from a unit that processed oil into hydrocarbon products leaked for about two hours while crews studied the situation and removed insulation from around the line.
“Suddenly, a vapor plume swelled around the crew and an idling fire truck, forcing more than 20 workers to flee for their lives.
“It took two minutes for the dense cloud to ignite…”
Once such a plume of flammable hydrocarbons forms, it is just a matter of a short time for it to mix with enough air, and for a spark to be present, which could have come from the idling truck, for an explosion to occur.
Then the fire would continue to roar as the leak fed it.
The RPA has worked with the union at Chevron to support the union’s call for better safety. The union local sought such measures in a recent contract, but the national union bureaucracy overruled them and signed a contract without the safety measures workers wanted.
When I worked at a nearby refinery, there was a big fire. The company blamed the workers and fired them.
I wonder how long it will take for Chevron to follow suit?
[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.]