If you live next to an oil refinery, are you just out of luck?
Last night's fire at the Chevron plant showed that having a belching stack of chemical processing equipment as your neighbor ranges from inconvenient to downright hazardous. Hundreds of Richmond residents sought treatment for breathing difficulties, some BART service was suspended and everyone was advised to stay indoors -- with duct tape at the ready.
Lots of people in Richmond -- like people everywhere in the United States -- like to drive cars. Cars burn gas, and you can't have gas without refineries. So is pollution simply the price we have to pay for our favorite mode of locomotion -- a price that the market has already figured into Richmond real estate values?
Richmond residents don't think so. "It was frightening for my family to watch the huge black plume of smoke fill the sky, and to hear the 'shelter in place' warning horns throughout the evening..." resident Kay Wallis told us in an email.
"The oil giant makes billions in profits by refining oil, but repeatedly sues our local government to reduce its corporate property taxes. I appreciate that Chevron reps have apologized for last night's fire and explosions, but an apology is not sufficient... Who will hold Chevron responsible??"
On KQED's forum on Tuesday, residents were wondering just how much they might suffer in the future. They wanted to know the effects of smoke residue on them, their kids, their gardens. They wanted to know how they can protect themselves in the future.
So what exactly is the cost of being near a refinery? Everyone agrees the asthma rate around the refinery is high. According to the California Department of Public Health, in 2009 there were 123.35 asthma emergency visits per 10,000 residents in Chevron's Richmond zip code, compared to 47.99 for the state as a whole.
It's hard to tease out the effects of oil refinery air pollution from air pollution in general and even harder to separate the pollution from other health risks -- such as poverty. In Richmond, 16.4% of residents live in poverty, compared to 13.7% of the state of California.
Still, you can't tell those residents whose eyes were burning last night that their suffering is due to poverty. "The smoke was kind of like an oily smell... and I have asthma really bad," Point Richmond resident Cheri Edwards told KQED on Monday night. "And right now I’m at the bus stop trying to go to Kaiser because I have been having respiratory problems."
Greg Karras, a senior scientist at Oakland-based Communities for a Better Environment argues that the effects are obvious. "People are experiencing headaches, weeping, trouble sleeping, and those are consistent with sulfur compound and hydrocarbons," he says.
So what's the solution?
In the long term, the whole country has to switch to a healthier source of energy, says Karras, adding that Richmond is a leader in solar panel installation. But he admits that's going to take a while.
And in the meantime, a lot of other improvements are possible, he says. He points out that a fire broke out at the refinery in 2007 -- apparently in the same place, the crude oil processing unit. “Refineries don’t burn down the crude unit every five years. That is not normal for a refinery," he said.
On Forum, Heather Kulp, a Chevron spokesperson apologized for the fire. "We're continually striving to improve our operational processes to minimize these incidents," she said. "And we are effectively working with our regulatory agencies to make sure we put into process and into place all those procedures we need to make sure these types of things don't happen in the future." But she didn't offer any specifics on measures the refinery is taking to prevent such crises.
And Karras points out that fires are only one source of pollution from the refinery. To improve these conditions, he and others have been calling on Chevron to update its equipment.
Such efforts have already made a difference, he says. The Bay Area Air Quality Management District imposed limitations on flares that burn off unwanted hydrocarbons. These flares are the biggest contributor to air pollution from the refineries, and they have been reduced by 10 fold, says Karras.
Also emergency warning systems could be improved. Many people reported not getting calls to warn them to go indoors, or getting them after smoke was already spreading.
What else can be done for the citizens of Richmond?
Richmond City Council member Jeff Ritterman has a simple answer. "Given the smoke inhalation injuries and the inconvenience and worry suffered by Richmond residents, I believe it would be appropriate for Chevron Corporation to compensate the Richmond community with a generous financial contribution," he said in an email.
Will Chevron be making such reparations?
Late on Tuesday afternoon, Chevron spokesman Lloyd Avram issued the following statement: "A claims process has been set up through Crawford and Company and we intend to compensate our neighbors for medical and property expenses incurred as a result of the incident. We will also see to it that communities will be reimbursed for the costs they face for emergency personnel who responded to last night’s incident. If you wish to file a claim please call 866-260-7881."
He said the company would have more answers in the evening at at a community meeting.