Rage poured out of residents’ pores and mouths on Tuesday night in Richmond.
Almost 500 people packed the town’s Civic Center for the Chevron hosted town hall meeting in response to the huge fire at the refinery on Monday night.
The evening,coincided with National Night Out-a major event in Richmond, began with a rally outside organized by Asian Pacific Environmental Network. Richmond’s Green Mayor, Gayle McLaughlin, spoke at this rally, reminding all that economic and environmental justice were key issues for Richmond.
The Cast of Characters
The town hall meeting inside included information about shelter in place and a small postcard was passed out with key numbers-like the claims hotline, odor lines and police.
The meeting was moderated by Joan Davis, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Richmond Community Foundation, an organization that is rumored to receive a significant amount of funding from Chevron. Her presence was unusual and condescending. She began by having each panel member give a short presentation on their role in the fire and the emergency response after, the panel included:
Nigel Hearne, Chevron Richmond refinery General Manager
Randy Sawyer, Director Hazardous Materials Division, Contra Costa Health Services
Bill Lindsay, Richmond City Manager (why wasn’t the Mayor invited on the panel?)
Dr. Wendel Brunner, Contra Costa Public Health Director
Katherine Hern, Contra Costa County Senior Emergency Planning Coordinator
Jeff McKay, Deputy Air Pollution Control Officer, Bay Area Air Quality Management District
Hearne expressed a sincere apology and accepted full responsibility for the fire at the refinery. However, he was unwilling to provide details about the substances burned in unit 4, he described it as a “diesel like” substance.
Hearne was unwilling to provide information about his annual salary. Hearne is a strategic leader for Chevron, formerly the operations manager at their beloved and touted El Segundo Refinery in Southern California.
Randy Sawyer was booed almost as much as Hearne. He provided no tangible information about what materials may have been in the air or what people were being exposed to. Residents felt the emergency response was inadequate-with a delayed siren and some that are registered did not receive calls about the impending danger.
Dr. Wendel Brunner was mildly feisty. He was the first person to discuss health effects from the smoke’s particulate matter. Brunner informed the crowd that as of 5 pm Tuesday, 949 people had reported acute (asthma attacks, burning eyes, burning nose and throat) health symptoms at the two area emergency rooms.
Brunner admitted that it had been “awhile since the last accident, but too soon.” However, Brunner knows this game-he’s seen it in 1999 and 2007 and has provided the same information about health effects to particulate matter. It is unsure if he has any real power to actually address the health impacts from Chevron’s operations.
Jeff McKay from the Bay Area Air Quality Management District should not be allowed to speak to the public. The Air Hugger strongly recommends that he be advised to stay in the office, crunching numbers, signing pollution permits, watering down data and have no direct contact with the general public. McKay was originally skipped for the presentations-and once he stood and spoke, it was obvious why.
McKay told the crowd that the BAAQMD was onsite taking measurements (no information was given at the meeting on what kind of “measurements” were taken and what the results might have been). McKay said that particulate sampling is still ongoing. He then alluded to 23 compounds in the air at levels that would be the same as what they would find on a normal day.
Does McKay’s normal day include a billowing, black cloud of burning diesel fuel?
After these short verbal presentations, residents were asked to line up (at least 20 feet from the stage) and were given the mic to ask questions and make statements.
What was in the air?
Several residents expressed their anger, frustration and fear from seeing the fire and dealing with the immediate health effects of family members. Many questions were asked about what was in the air and what chemicals people were breathing-no answers.
One woman pressed, she asked for four things that were in the air during the fire. After repeated attempts to dodge this question, Contra Costa County’s Randy Sawyer responded:
Global Community Monitor also took particulate samples during the fire and will be getting these results analyzed. We are also offering to sample five residents home for fallout from the smoke and get it analyzed for polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH’s).
Real time air monitoring: early warning detection system
The fire occurred in the same exact unit as 2007. This unit has burned down twice in 5 years. Also, an environmental scientist believes that unit 4 was not a part of Chevron modernization/expansion that was challenged and stopped in 2008.
Chevron had committed in 2010 to install a real time air monitoring system similar to Contra Costa County refineries, Valero and Conoco Phillips. Real time air monitoring provides information about chemical leaks the moment they are happening. This can assist refinery operations personnel to better assess how big a leak or hazard might be.
Real time air monitoring can also help emergency responders understand what chemicals are in the air-giving them key knowledge about how to fight the hazard. Real time air monitoring can also be important to neighbors of the refinery. By viewing a website, neighbors can view what they are breathing at any given time of the day.
After the San Bruno gas pipeline explosion, PG&E is installing a whole army of real time air monitors equipped to detect chemical leaks. The money they are investing in the equipment is will be far less than the lives that were lost and the damages during the fire.
Chevron could have saved a serious amount of money and resources had they caught this leak earlier. This could have also saved taxpayer county resources, health effects, the closure of BART and the fear of not knowing what was going to happen next with the inferno.
Voices Silenced, Neighbors cut off
The most infuriating thing of the whole meeting, in a close competition with the lack of information given, was that the microphones were taken away at 8:10 with more than 30 people still in line with questions and comments.
Moderator Joan Davis checked in at 8 pm and stated that the meeting was originally intended only to go until 8pm, but that the panel was willing to stay until all comments and questions were heard. The people in line were given yet another confirmation that they would finish that meeting with the people that were in line at that moment, and no more people were to join.
Not sure if it was a spirited plea for clean air or the mention of the mess and lawsuit in Ecuador, the abrupt stop to the meeting was unclear. Quickly, Chevron’s consultants and crew grabbed the mikes and closed down the meeting. Joan Davis turned her eyes down and walked away and would not talk to anyone. Nigel Hearne was rushed away and out of the auditorium in minutes.
Chevron has an additional accident report due to Contra Costa County at Thursday at 5pm.
Prior to leaving, Hearne had committed that this was the first of many meetings to come about the fire and addressing the root causes of the fire. It could be months before any real information is released.
After this blatant disregard to hear the community out and provide information, Chevron hosted meetings will not be on my calendar.