‘No time for inaction’: How a California refinery disaster created a generation of activists | California

This article originally appeared in Nexus Media News and was made possible by a grant from the Open Society Foundations.

On the afternoon of August 6, 2012, a thick black plume developed over Richmond, California, 10 miles northeast of San Francisco. As the air thickened with smoke, residents instinctively knew the source: the Chevron oil refinery that for decades dominated the working-class community.

In the days that followed, 15,000 people in the region sought treatment for respiratory problems. Residents would later learn that a corroded pipe had leaked and exploded, causing one of the region’s worst refinery disasters in memory. Chevron, which resumed full operations the following year, was ultimately fined $2 million for the incident and did not contest six criminal charges, including failing to “correct deficiencies” in equipment (the company later paid the city $5 million to settle a lawsuit stemming from the fire).

Richmond had lived through previous refinery explosions and years of pollution had taken its toll: The prevalence of asthma in the majority black, Hispanic and Asian city is nearly double the state average. But the blaze sparked a lasting new wave of environmental activism.

“I think the 2012 fire played a big role in creating a generation of young people who are pissed off and look at the status quo and say, ‘Enough is enough,'” said Alfredo Angulo, who was 12 at the time.

Progressives hold the majority of seats on the city’s city council and have cracked down on polluting industries, banning the export of coal from the port of Richmond and suing fossil fuel companies for their role in climate change.

Ten years after the disaster, Nexus Media News spoke with four Richmond community organizers about the city’s history, their memories of the disaster and their visions for a post-Chevron Richmond.

Linsi Crain, spokesperson for Chevron, said the company since 2021 has taken a wide range of measures to improve safety performance. “Our workforce of 3,000 takes its role as a good neighbor seriously and works continuously to ensure safe operation and environmental protection,” added Crain.

The Chevron Richmond Long Dock at the Chevron Richmond refinery in February 2021. An estimated 15,000 people in the area sought treatment after a 2012 incident at the facility. Photography: Ray Chavez/AP

“We have always been a corporate city”

Robin Lopez, PhD student at UC Berkeley, 33: Richmond is a vibrant community of people from all walks of life, many of whom seek refuge in other countries. We have a large Latinx population as well as a lot of Southeast Asian people. Sadly, Richmond has witnessed a huge exodus of our fellow black community members. These are very vulnerable populations.

Alfredo Angulo, Richmond Listening Project, 22: We’ve always been a corporate town – Richmond wasn’t even created until after Chevron’s refinery arrived in 1902. We’re a hub for industry, not just for Chevron. The Pullman Railroad Company had stores here; the Santa Fe railroad had a house here. The uranium was [handled] here during WWII.

Due to the legacy of redlining and residential segregation, black and brown communities bear much of the burden of the industry that made Richmond what it is today.

Lopez: We have the story that Chevron was here before the city was even incorporated. But even before the city was incorporated, there were people here. And even before the colonizers were here, the first stewards of the land were here: the Ohlone. These are not people of the past; they are our friends. We have community members who are part of the Ohlone community fighting for federal recognition.

Katherine Ramos, Richmond Our Power Coalition, 42: At least once a month an audible alarm sounds that you can hear everywhere. It gives us the impression that something is going to fall on us like a bomb. It’s Chevron’s drill. It sends our nervous systems into this wild circumstance; it’s as if they let us know that we were still there.

the pair hold signs stating
Alfredo Angulo and another demonstrator protest against the installation. Organizers say the blaze sparked an environmental justice movement in the city. Photograph: Courtesy of Alfredo Angulo

August 6 2012

Lopez: I had just finished working at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. I remember taking the Bart [Bay Area Rapid Transit] home and saw a cloud of black smoke over our house. My mom walks out, and she looks up and you wonder what’s going on? And we turn on the news and we start to see and hear things spilling out.

Brandy Khansouvong, Asia-Pacific Environmental Network, 29: My mother and my aunt don’t speak much English – their first language is Laotian. So it was difficult for me to explain to them what was going on. I told my mom to close all the windows because Chevron is burning.

Angle: I remember walking into my kitchen, the window of which faces the refinery, and seeing the huge cloud of black smoke covering everything. It was apocalyptic, watching the whole sky turn black and the neighbors outside trying to figure out what was going on.

On the impact of the disaster on public health

Khansouvong: My aunt had to see a doctor because she had heart problems and asthma. She ended up in the hospital for, I think, eight days.

Angle: We had just brought my grandmother from Mexico, so that she reaches her 70s, we can take care of her. She developed asthma after that day – she had never had asthma in her life until then. We had brought my grandmother to protect her from danger and that is exactly what the refinery did.

Ramos: Hundreds of people ended up in the hospital. Thousands of people were left with long-term respiratory problems, which were compounded by other pollution-related health issues.

Richmond Our Power Coalition – a coalition of nine organizations working to move us away from fossil fuels and decommission the Chevron refinery – emerged from this explosion. Much of the community came together, feeling weary after 120 years of harm.

Portrait of Katt Ramos
Katt Ramos, an organizer from Richmond, says the sound of the Chevron alarm drill still worries members of the community. Photography: Denny Khamphanthong

‘Enough is enough’

Angle: It’s hard to differentiate between what is a direct result of the 2012 fire and what is the result of just growing up here. One in four children growing up in Richmond will develop asthma at some point in their life. My sister and I have suffered from asthma all our lives. I can’t even quantify the number of hours I spent in the hospital as a child with asthma-related complications.

Khansouvong: My parents came to Richmond to escape the Laos war. They wanted to find a safe place to raise their children, to live a better life.

When my mother came here, they didn’t know there was a big oil refinery in our backyard. They found out because there was an explosion at the Chevron refinery in the 90s – I must have been a baby then. After the explosion, my father developed asthma and a few of my uncles developed respiratory problems. My aunt also suffers from asthma and heart problems. Sometimes she says the air makes her hard to breathe and it hurts her heart.

Some people in my family have respiratory problems. The elderly in my family, my mother and my aunt, cannot breathe and are always sick. They rely on me to take care of them and take them to the doctor. Now I have a seven and a half year old son. He’s at summer school near the refinery and I’m afraid he’s breathing that air.

Lopez: There was even a study by a team at UC Berkeley demonstrating that Chevron pollution also impacts the indoor air quality of those residents’ households. There is no way out.

Brandy Khansouvong makes a presentation
Brandy Khansouvong’s aunt had to seek emergency treatment. Photo: Asia-Pacific Environmental Network

Angle: Chevron provides about 25-26% of the city’s budget [through tax revenue]. We are toxically addicted to Chevron. So there’s a lot of fear in the community for the day Chevron won’t be around.

This is where we, the Richmond Listening Project, come into the picture, starting conversations with people about a future beyond Chevron.

Our goal with the project is to amplify the stories and voices of the communities most impacted by fossil fuel operations here in Richmond. I was thrilled to discover, in these conversations, that everyday people have a vision of a Richmond beyond Chevron. This is a community where we have clean air, clean water, clean soil, and where our economy is regenerative and not based on fossil fuel extraction.

Ramos: The 2012 fire was one of those “enough” moments. Several environmental justice organizations have come together and formed a coalition.

We have created a support network; we have developed a cooperative-owned business incubator; there are cooperative owned housing structures so people can afford to stay here.

The community has converted what was once a dump into Unity Park. This is where many community events take place. Rich rides in town [a nonprofit that promotes cycling as a green mode of transportation] starts our Self-Care Sunday rides there.

In North Richmond, you have Urban Tilth, which produces hundreds of pounds of fresh, organic, hyper-local foods that are distributed to the community, which normally doesn’t have access to these types of foods.

The people who lived here wanted more than to fight this refinery, but to create the future they had imagined.

Robin Lopez at a screening of the film Richmond Speaks.
Robin Lopez at a screening of the film Richmond Speaks, one of many activities put on by environmental groups in the area. Photography: Malcolm Wallace

Khansouvong: I started going to Apen [Asian Pacific Environmental Network] meetings with my mother. My mother always says she escaped the war to find a better life, but the pollution here brings its own challenges. It meant a lot to me to be part of the network. We were able to share our experiences with others [frontline] communities. Sometimes we cry – it can get emotional.

Angle: Following the fire, the Richmond Progressive Alliance came together to take political power away from Chevron and put that decision-making power back in the hands of the community. We have a progressive majority on city council and we have been able to pass many environmental policies. We banned coal hauling in Richmond and passed a progressive corporate income tax.

I think the 2012 fire played a big role in creating a generation of young people who are pissed off and look at the status quo and say, ‘Enough is enough’. We are a generation that has never lived in a world without a climate crisis, and we are beginning to see that we have no time for inaction.

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