So what happens when the nearby refinery has an accident?

The GCM team springs into action!

On August 6, 2012 an explosion happened at the Chevron Refinery in Richmond, CA that led to a fire at the facility.  This industrial accident sent a huge plume of smoke into the sky and left heavy soot fallout on residents’ homes, yards and gardens.  Neither Chevron nor the Bay Area Air District had any monitoring data on what neighbors could have been exposed to, the GCM team connected with families that had noticed heavy soot on their property just after the fire.

We collected 10 wipe samples and analysed them for Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAH’s) and found some alarming results.

But here’s a little insight into first-hand experiences of collecting air samples with community members.

First, we reached out to local residents through online sources, media outlets and email list serves.  In response, we were contacted by a slew of folks expressing their concerns.  Then Senior Program Manager Jessica Hendricks prioritized locations for sampling and hit the pavement.  Here’s her story:

After meandering through busy work schedules and the windy roads of the Richmond Hills, I knock on the door of the first house.  A woman answers, carrying a baby and kicking children’s toys out of the front hallway.  She’s extremely concerned for her young children’s health and worried about how to clean up the oily soot fallout.

We discussed ways to limit exposure to potentially harmful chemicals.  But, the truth is, we don’t have the answers and that’s part of the problem.  No air monitoring had been done at the time of the accident, so we just don’t know.  After connecting with some more families, I found that many folks in the greater Richmond area shared her same concerns.  “What is it? Is it harmful to my family’s health?”  The reality is that these questions need very real answers, from the agencies responsible for protecting our health and the companies responsible for maintaining the safety of their refineries.  Neighbors have the right to know, and deserve comprehensive air monitoring data.

She gestures to the back deck, where she’s noticed the most of the sooty fallout, which is also where she keeps bees for honey.  So I step outside, try to ignore the swarm of honey bees and pull out the sampling kit.  As the bees start landing on me, she yells from behind the patio door- “You’re not allergic to bees, are you?”  Luckily I’m not, and I quickly wiped up the oily soot and placed it back in the tube to be sent to the lab.

Off to the next house, which I need to drive to Hayward for…

This family was housesitting for a friend on Albany hill at the time of the fire, but had since gone back to their home in Hayward.  The fallout was still very apparent on the family car, so I pull out my wipe kit and got to work.  This sample came back with measurable levels of PAH’s so I wanted to do a background sample at this location.  However, now I needed to get in touch with the homeowners about leaving a pie plate out on their property for a week.

After a normal week, I would then take a wipe sample of the pie plate to determine the ambient levels of PAH’s at this location.

So I give the guy a call, explain the situation and arrange a time to go over and set out the pie plate.  When I arrive at the residence and knock on the door, his wife answers, whom of course has not been informed of by her husband of the scientific data collection I am looking to do at her home!

So I’m standing at her front door with a pie plate and a roll of tape trying to explain what I’m there for.  After explaining the entire backstory, in the best way possible as to not appear crazy, the first thing she says is, “Well, sure but we’ve got this wild turkey that roams around here and I’m afraid he’ll take it.”  So we identify an elevated location, out of the turkey’s reach and I climb up on her front deck railing to tape down the pie plate to the lattice above.  Luckily, I’m not afraid of heights either.


After a few weeks of identifying concerned residents, driving around the meandering roads of the Richmond hills and hearing complaints about Chevron’s irresponsibility, a lot of questions come up about the potential contamination of urban gardens.  Many folks living in the community have small vegetable gardens and for some, this is a huge part of their diet.  “Is it safe to eat my spinach?”  “Do I need to replace my soil?” and “Is Chevron going to reimburse me for all of this potentially contaminated food?”  The reality is that neighbors have worked so hard to get to a place where the majority of their fresh food is grown in their backyard, what right does Chevron have to take that away from them?

One last door, and I’m excited that I’m finally able to connect with this woman who I’ve been trading voicemails with for weeks.  But as it turns out, I’m not going to meet her today.  I knock on the door and who answers but Deputy Tommy Hill from Twin Peaks!


Seems as if everyone is concerned with the toxic emissions Chevron is putting out into our communities AND the lack of air monitoring done by the Air District, the exact folks that are responsible for ensuring our air is healthy to breathe.

Image from

Real-time air monitors need to be installed on the fencline of Chevron’s property, similarly to the ones at the Phillip 66 Rodeo Refinery.  Chevron actually got a tax break from the City of Richmond to do just that in 2010.  This would have given residents comprehensive air monitoring data on the day of the fire as well as on a day to day basis.  Residents have the right to know what is in the air that they are breathing so they can make informed, educated decisions for their health and the health of their families.

So if you ever see a smiling lady, with a pie tin in her hand, in your neighborhood running away from a wild turkey or a swarm of bees, don’t be alarmed. It’s just GCM stepping up to the plate to help us learn what is in the air we are all breathing.