On Feb. 9, an oil spill at the Chevron refinery in Richmond released approximately 600 gallons of oil into the San Francisco Bay. The oil spilled for at least two hours before it was stopped and a single containment boom was deployed to initiate clean-up. Many Richmond residents say that response was grossly inadequate, arguing that action should have been taken sooner, that containment efforts should have been more aggressive, and that there is an urgent need for increased transparency as to how the oil spill happened and the status of clean-up efforts.
As of now, very little is known about the incident, and environmental activists are skeptical that the ongoing multi-agency investigation including the Bay Area Air District, the U.S. Coast Guard, Contra Costa County, and several other local and federal agencies will release findings in a time and manner favorable to Chevron.
“There’s been no public release or any indication of what the cause is. All we know is there was a quarter-inch hole in one of the pipes,” said Ben Eichenberg, staff attorney with the San Francisco Bay watchdog group Baykeeper, in a Tuesday press conference. Referencing previous investigations of the Chevron facility as supporting evidence, he said that findings are normally released “as quietly as possible to avoid as much publicity as they can.”
In a Tuesday statement issued by a Unified Command — the group that responded to this spill, which was composed of the U.S. Coast Guard, California Department of Fish and Wildlife Office of Spill Prevention and Response, Contra Costa Health Services, and Chevron — it was announced that cleanup efforts were concluded after the command had not detected any sheen on the water for at least 48 hours (the final day sheen was observed, according to the report, was Feb. 19). A spokesman with the Department of Fish and Wildlife said the cleanup was concluded on Feb. 23.
Samples of the water, sediment, and mussels in the area are currently being studied and that results are “pending in a laboratory.” Results are due sometime in March.
Chevron has a long and troubled history in the city of Richmond. In the last five years alone, Chevron has had to answer to 147 formal enforcement actions, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. A large and toxic 2012 Refinery Fire sent more than 15,000 people to the hospital. Many environmentalists and public health experts also point to Chevron as the probable reason for high rates of asthma, cancer, and other conditions amongst Richmond residents. About 25 percent of Richmond residents have asthma, 12 points higher than the overall state average, while nearly half of homes in 2008 were found to house cancer-causing chemicals linked to the facility. As recently as 2017, Chevron was impacted by legislation aiming to limit toxic air containing carcinogenic chemicals. Given that 80 percent of the city’s residents are people of color, many community activists say Chevron’s ability to pollute in the city is an example of environmental racism.
In response, Richmond Public Affairs Manager Linsi Crain says that diversity and inclusion are “key Chevron values,” and that they’ve reduced emissions by 86 percent over the past four decades.
The Tuesday press conference was hosted by the Richmond Our Power Coalition, a group of local environmental organizations based in and around the Richmond area including the Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN), Urban Tilth, Communities for a Better Environment (CBE), and Rich City Rides. Participants, several of whom were young people in or recently graduated from Richmond High, shared what it was like to live near the facility. Eichenberg as well as several environmental organizers and Richmond City Council member Eduardo Martinez also shared their policy concerns.
“When young people are talking about their futures we should be taking up the most space because we are the ones who will be dealing with the consequences of whatever conscious choices Chevron and others make,” said 16-year-old Lisbeth Ibarra. A representative of the Richmond Ryse Center, youth-led environmental organization Youth vs. Apocalypse, and California Youth vs. Big Oil, she gave a personal account of how her life has been impacted by Chevron’s pollution. In one particularly powerful example, she spoke of her grandmother who worked nights at the Chevron facility as a janitor, and later died from cancer. “This is the clearest form of environmental racism: Chevron has thrived off of exploiting Richmond, a primarily low income community of Black and Indigenous people of color, jeopardizing our public health,” she said.
The Richmond Our Power Coalition advocates for what they call a “just transition” away from reliance on the Chevron refinery. The company is by far the city’s top employer, providing nearly 3,500 jobs. But advocates say if they transition away from Chevron in a way that mimics the Green New Deal, far more jobs will be created dismantling the plant and operating new clean energy facilities.
“The spill in the bay last week was just another accident that could have been prevented,” said council member Martinez. “We are looking for a transition that corrects the damages inflicted on our community through the thoughtlessness and carelessness of industry.”