This Won’t Be Chevron’s Last Oil Spill.

Protect our communities now

By Joy Watson

The drive from Richmond to Marin County is, like most of the Bay Area, full of contrasts that are oftentimes uncomfortable. The busy and brightly colored store fronts of my neighborhood in San Pablo fade quickly into shades of gray- concrete, rubble, chain-link, rusted mobile homes and abandoned mattresses that hug empty sidewalks. Approaching the Richmond Bridge, the MCE solar farm gleams black in the sunlight, right down the street to a chemical plant and the Chevron refinery — the very one that spilled 600 gallons of petroleum products into the San Francisco Bay on Feb. 11.

I took this drive about a week ago with my friend Ben in the passenger seat. Ben is a jack of all trades, and has worked for the past few years making sure gas stations are safe and up to code. As we passed the Chevron refinery, he was able to gauge its size and classification with a glance and made an offhand comment about how large companies like Chevron are able to skirt many environmental regulations that are more strongly enforced on smaller companies.

This comment turned out to be timely foreshadowing, as the devastating oil spill dirtied the waters only two days later. The spill was caused by a hole in one of Chevron’s pipelines, releasing a mix of gasoline, oil, and diesel that was allowed to leak for over two hours at a rate of 4 gallons per minute. Seeing the aerial footage of the spill was surreal. The iridescent reflection crept along the coast line, past a beach I have spent countless afternoons, where my one-year-old son would confidently charge into the water, laughing and squealing with delight as I chased him back onto the sand. Most days at Keller Beach, it’s easy to spot fisherman and swim cap-covered heads bobbing up and down, and on hot days you’ll have to fight for a parking spot and place on the sand. Yet despite being a naturally gorgeous and very popular location that is considered one of the safer places in the area to swim, this location has been subjected to pollution from the major industrial players for decades.

I became physically nauseous researching this spill, as I learned more about the pollution that is happening every day in my community because of the refinery. The waste isn’t just deposited in the water during accidents like this, but also as a regular part of business. In Chevron‘s own paperwork, they list the San Francisco Bay as important for the “preservation of rare and endangered species.” They also readily admit that their refinery pollutes the water, air and soil and that “all sectors have impacted soil and/or groundwater from historic releases.”

The Chevron Richmond Refinery has the capacity to store 600 million gallons of oil and spans 2,900 acres, just a bit smaller than the entire nearby town of Albany. Source: California Regional Water Quality Control Board

People in the community regularly report seeing oil flares at the nearby refineries, a technique of releasing excess fuel that releases volatile organic compounds, including methane, into the air. This methane, as a greenhouse gas, then traps heat in our atmosphere, contributing to global climate change and poor air quality. Contra Costa County Supervisor John Gioia addressed the health effects of living near the refinery and other industrial plants, stating that pollution in the area contributes to higher rates of asthma and cancer in the Richmond area. In 2012, an explosion and fire at the same plant resulted in a $5 million settlement for the health risk posed to people in the area. However, for a behemoth of a corporation like Chevron, which is able to store and process 600,000,000 gallons of oil just at this one plant, the fines and lawsuits from these careless assaults on our environment are unlikely to affect the company’s bottom line in the slightest.

Thankfully, this oil spill was relatively small and appears to have been cleaned up quickly before much damage was done to the wildlife and humans in the area. But if nothing changes, this won’t be the last oil spill in this area, and the people in our community will continue to have to live with the health effects of the daily pollution caused by our industrial neighbors.

To see real change and to protect our air and waterways, we must put social and political pressure on these companies, to better regulate while they’re still around. Even more so, we must pressure our representatives and demand a Green New Deal, so that our future can be free from fossil fuels entirely, so that my son can play on a beach that isn’t overshadowed by a refinery. My community, and all of our communities, deserve to have access to clean air, water, and unpolluted soil.

In the words of local resident and artist Jan Etre, “Nothing is going to make a difference until we are away from fossil fuels.”

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