Last week, a national leader from across the globe visited Richmond, CA to show solidarity amongst fenceline communities.  Desmond D’sa, a South African native, living next to an industrial hub containing multiple petrochemical plants and two oil refineries, (one of which is the largest in the country), pointed out the vast similarities between his hometown of Durban, South Africa and the disproportionately effected fenceline community of North Richmond, CA.

Image from Richmond Confidential

At a community meeting in Richmond, hosted by International Development Exchange (IDEX), Desmond, the Director of South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (SDCEA), told stories of corporate bullying, neglect and the corrupt government officials that idly stand by.  These stories rang true to the residents of Richmond who have seen many of the same corporate tactics.  After a toxic release in Richmond in 1991, West County Toxic Coalition wrote a letter to Chevron that included the same observation: “But when it comes to the company’s damage to human beings, who are your neighbors, you have ignored your responsibilities.”

The residents of both communities are plagued by acute health problems believed to be related to the heavy industrial chemicals processed at nearby oil refineries.  Asthma and cancer rates are high in both communities and the risk of accidents at the refineries is a day-to-day threat for residents.  Both communities feel their health is marginalized in favor of corporate profits and that their concerns have been minimized and left to fall on deaf ears.  And yet, both communities see similar solutions of real time air monitoring and emergency response plans.

Residents deserve the right to know what they are being exposed to, and real time air monitoring along the fenceline is the only way for the community to understand the level of exposure.  Global Community Monitor empowers residents by training citizens to monitor their own air through the Bucket Brigade, and has worked closely with Desmond as well as other members of SDCEA.  Desmond argued that collecting and distributing data regarding pollution and its health impacts were crucial in winning larger public support for environmental reforms.  Industry needs to be held accountable and should be required to use their profits to clean up their mess.

These similarities do more than just make personal connections.  These similarities show a troubling trend of industrial neighbors worldwide.  Many industries across the globe operate with impunity and apparent disregard for their neighbors living on the fenceline.  This is not an isolated problem and we cannot view it as such.  In a radio interview (Desmond’s portion begins around ¾ mark), Desmond stressed the need for fenceline communities, like the ones in Richmond, CA and South Durban, South Africa, to unite with other Environmental Justice groups around the world.  Small groups of committed activists can alter the policies of major multinational corporations and history tells us that is usually the only way to bring about change.

“You can win against giants” -Desmond D’Sa