Richmond: Company Town or People's Town?

Feeley, Dianne

Publisher:  Against the Current
Date Written:  01/07/2014
Year Published:  2014  
Resource Type:  Article
Cx Number:  CX20786

Feeley delves into the problematic dynamics surrounding the election campaign in Richmond, CA whereby the city's dominant corporation, the Chevron oil refinery which carries a long history of environmental concerns with it, could potentially have a greater hand in municipal decisions if one of its candidates are elected.



Dominating the East Bay city, the more than 100-year old Chevron oil refinery sprawls over five square miles of shoreline. As the country;s most productive refinery, processes around 250,000 barrels of crude a day. Its taxes and fees contribute one-third of Richmond, California's general fund. It also regularly releases carcinogens and other pollutants into the air; East Bay residents have the highest asthma rates in the state, while in a typical year the Richmond refinery takes in $20-30 billion.

In August 2012 an explosion and fire ripped through the refinery, producing a plume of toxic smoke. The fire nearly killed a dozen workers and sent more than 15,000 residents to nearby hospitals and medical centers seeking help for respiratory problems.

While the refinery has been the scene of major fires, spills, leaks and explosions — and residents have sought to hold Chevron accountable over the years — this disaster has initiated a wide-ranging discussion about the hazards of transporting and refining oil in the city, and the Bay Area.

The immediate cause was a burst pipe, thinned by corrosion. Company records revealed that operators had targeted the pipe for replacement ten years before! Investigating the incident, Cal/OSHA found 25 violations and issued the largest fine ever imposed on a corporation -- $1 million. Chevron pled no contest to six charges filed by state and local prosecutors, agreeing to pay an additional $2 million in fines. According to Chevron, hospitals and individuals have also been reimbursed to the tune of $10 million.

Richmond mayor Gayle McLaughlin and the City Council rejected the corporation's $10 million settlement offer, filing suit for even greater compensation. They pointed out that not only did the fire cause a drop in property values that would have a severe impact on city finances, but that the refinery has created a "pattern of abuse" for residents.

To mark the one-year anniversary of the disaster, 2,500 demonstrators marched through the town to the gates of the refinery. Communities for a Better Environment (CBE), the Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN), West Contra Costa County Toxics Coalition (WCCTC) and RPA -- local organizations that have been fighting to end toxic waste emissions -- were joined by Idle No More and other environmental activists. Mayor McLaughlin addressed the rally along with Bill McKibben, organizer, who tied the local environmental dangers to the national campaign against global warming.
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