Once Again, a Chevron Oil Spill Is Impacting a Community of Color

Richmond residents have lived through a long history of environmental injustice perpetrated by the oil giant

Chevron and fire-agency crews respond to a five-gallon-per-minute petroleum product leak in the waters of Point Richmond as an absorbent boom is placed next to the Chevron Richmond Long Wharf in Richmond, California, on Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2021. Photo: Ray Chavez/MediaNews Group/The Mercury News via Getty Images

On Tuesday, the Chevron Refinery in Richmond, California, spilled up to 750 gallons of diesel fuel into the San Francisco Bay, leaving many of the city’s residents feeling unsafe and scared. Two days after the spill, a muted, rainbow-colored sheen could be seen along at least a mile-long stretch of the coastline. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife tweeted that some of the oil has washed ashore.

“It is alarming,” Dale Weatherspoon, pastor of the Richmond-based Easter Hill United Church, tells Future Human. “As one person said, ‘I just don’t feel safe walking along the beach or having my children playing in the water,’ you know? So it’s affecting people’s quality of life. I’m thankful that it wasn’t a larger spill.”

Compared to previous oil spills in the United States, the recent Richmond spill was relatively small. Three years ago, Chevron spilled 4,800 gallons of oil in western Colorado in 2017, and BP spilled 210 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 during the Deepwater Horizon incident. Contra Costa Health Services rescinded a public health alert issued in the early hours after Tuesday’s spill, and recovery crews have found no visible impacts on wildlife.

“Well, to me, it’s just another example of how the Chevron Richmond refinery is incompetent in running their facility over the last several years.”

Nevertheless, environmental justice activists in Richmond point out that the refinery has long threatened the public health of the city. Richmond-based groups like Communities for a Better Environment and the Asian Pacific Environmental Network are calling for the refinery to be shut down and decommissioned safely. It’s not just happening in Richmond — the company has a long history of environmental abuses in communities of color across the globe, including Ecuador, Brazil and Nigeria.

“It’s just another example of how the Chevron Richmond refinery is incompetent in running their facility over the last several years, since their modernization project,” Andres Soto, an organizer with the Bay Area-based environmental organization Communities for a Better Environment.

The Chevron refinery modernization project, which included major infrastructure upgrades and the construction of a new hydrogen plant, started in 2016. It was sparked by community members pushing the City of Richmond to force the company to make the upgrades in the wake of a major fire at the refinery in 2012.

Prior to the fire, two other incidents at the plant that resulted in worker or resident injury had made the news. In 1989, an explosion and fire at the plant injured eight refinery employees and one firefighter and, in 1999, a similar event sent noxious fumes into the air, sending hundreds to local hospitals.

The 2012 explosion and fire at the plant caused 15,000 city residents to seek medical treatment. Despite community pressure for Chevon to either upgrade or close the plant, there have been several instances of flaring — the burning of excess gasses that can not be recovered or recycled — since the modernization project began. Flaring sends heavy plumes of smoke into the air, alarming residents.

“There’s actually an increase in flaring, which puts toxic material into the air,” Soto says. “So, I think the oil spill is just another example of how they pollute our community. I suspect what we’ll find out is that there was a management decision to not adequately maintain that pipeline.”

Currently, the Unified Command (UC) — which comprises the California Department of Fish and Wildlife Office of Spill Prevention and Response, Contra Costa Health Services, and the U.S. Coast Guard — are in charge of ongoing clean up and recovery efforts. The UC has deployed booms, which are floating, cylindrical barriers used to contain and absorb oil spill, to absorb the diesel from the water.

Tyler Kruzich, an advisor for external affairs at Chevron, tells Future Human the company is investigating the cause of the spill along with government officials. “We will learn from this incident,” he says, “and we will take appropriate measures to minimize a recurrence.”

In June of last year, when Black Lives Matter uprisings began all over the United States and corporations started issuing statements of racial solidarity, Chevron made sure to be counted amongst the companies claiming to stand with Black people and their allies. I wrote about it and spoke to Richmond residents then who were skeptical of their statement given the company’s long history of environmental injustices in Richmond, which has large Black, Latinx, and Asian populations.

Although we don’t know the magnitude of damage done by this oil spill, the spill makes Richmond residents even more wary of Chevron. It’s been almost a decade since the 2012 Chevron fire sent thousands to the hospital. Maybe if the company hasn’t been able to clean up its act in that amount of time, it should shut down and decommission.

Drew Costley is a Staff Writer at FutureHuman covering the environment, health, science and tech. Previously @ SFGate, East Bay Express, USA Today, etc.

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