Struggle on the Other Coast, Part I – Georgetown International Environmental Law Review


Struggle on the Other Coast, Part I

By Corey Kestenberg, Staff Contributor

The juxtaposition between corporate profits and human and environmental safety has long been an issue requiring a constant balancing act. In this three-part installment piece, GIELR Online explores the issue by examining the actions of Chevron, and the reactions emanating from the adjacent located in Richmond, California. Part I provides a history on Chevron’s operation in Richmond, its harmful effects on the community, and the mixed reactions to the business. Part II delves into the community and judicial backlash against Chevron, and the heavier burdens imposed upon its future projects. Part III wraps up the piece by posing the following question: how can the community, the industry, and the government motivate safer corporate practices by large companies like Chevron?

The 2012 Refinery Fire

“Fire still roaring. Still very black. Still very toxic. Stay indoors, residents, and cover your door cracks and leaky windows with wet towels if possible. Turn off air conditioning. And, as always, stay calm.”

–sfist news source, August 6, 2012, 8:20pm[i]

In early August, the summer days become shorter, but the sun stakes its claim into the early evening hours. The sky is light; but should not be as light as it was on August 6, 2012. On this day, at 6:15pm, flames from Chevron’s oil refinery in Richmond, California danced high into the sky. Christina Saeteurn, a life-long resident of North Richmond, saw the black sky, describing it as “something out of a science fiction book or movie.”[ii] Swelling plumes of smoke enveloped Richmond, casting a low-hanging darkness over the city. The city mandated all local residents to “shelter in place”—to stay indoors.[iii] Despite residents’ curiosity to explore the fire raging outside and their desire to check on friends and neighbors, they knew these precautions were indicative of real dangers, and so many heeded the City’s warning.[iv]

In addition to seeing the fire and smoke, Richmond’s residents could feel it: More than 15,000 people sought medical attention at area hospitals in the two weeks after the ignition, claiming difficulty breathing, skin and eye irritation, and nausea.[v] One Contra Costa County hazardous materials specialist said, “no hazardous compounds had been detected in the air;” yet that was little consolation to at least one local resident who lived in Richmond since 1987, and believes “the refinery doesn’t do enough to protect local residents.”[vi]

Sure enough, the physical state of Chevron’s refinery and the company’s actions leading up to the August 6 fire were indicative more of neglect than of protection. The fire started in the No. 4 crude unit,[1] after refinery workers spotted a leak in a pipe.[vii] Chevron’s own post-fire investigation revealed that, in 2002, measurements showed that the crude unit piping was thinning; however, this finding was not properly documented at that time, and no action was taken to repair the thinning. During another inspection in 2011, inspectors failed to assess all refinery parts that were in danger of experiencing sulfidation corrosion.[2], [viii] Chevron’s missed opportunities to act diligently to ensure the safety of the refinery workers and the surrounding community indicate the oil giant’s willingness to gamble with the well-being of these interest groups. Sadly, this was not the first time Chevron took such a gamble.

The Chevron Richmond Refinery: From the Past to the Present

“Now in its second century of operation, the Richmond refinery continues to rank among the major refineries in the United States . . . Throughout, it has also sustained a close relationship with the community and conducted its business in a way that is compatible with its neighbors and the environment.”

         –Chevron Richmond website[ix]

The Chevron Richmond refinery opened its doors for operation in 1902 even before the City of Richmond was even incorporated.[x] After Richmond’s incorporation in 1905, the Chevron refinery and the City have since had a symbiotic relationship. The City’s population grew in response to the increasing number of required refinery workers. At incorporation, Richmond had 2,150 residents, but within five years its population more than tripled.[xi] From 1914 to 1919, the number of refinery employees nearly doubled from 1,615 to 3,300.[xii]

Lifelong Richmond residents cannot imagine a Chevron-less Richmond. Community activist, Henry Clark, said that “[a]s a child, he was fascinated by the factory on the hill, all lit up at night like the hellish twin of a fairy tale city.”[xiii] Hellish indeed. In the past, Chevron deposited toxic chemicals into designated areas called “landfarms.”[xiv] Benzene and chromium, two known carcinogens were only two of the chemicals in Chevron’s toxic ground soups.[xv] While Chevron claims it “‘would never do anything to intentionally create an unsafe situation,’”[xvi] its actions belie this assertion. From 1991-1999, Chevron Richmond had ten “serious” chemical releases.[xvii] Community members feel like little effort has been made throughout the years to make the physical changes to the refinery and implement safer practices that are needed to protect the community from such incidents. One community activist, who leads tours of Richmond’s environmental contamination sites said, “‘It’s no accident that dangerous fires, explosions, and toxic spills continue to increase when refineries are calling the shots and monitoring themselves.’”[xviii] Chevron did spend $1 million on superficial changes: It painted the chrome-colored oil holding tanks a reddish-brown color to help them blend into the hillside scenery. However, this project also increased the pollution by the refinery, as the paint caused more heat to be absorbed by the tanks and more evaporation of chemicals from the tanks.[xix]

Though the Chevron refinery is both an eyesore and the possible or certain source (depending on who you ask) of the community’s health problems, there is no disputing the significant contribution that the refinery makes to the Richmond community. In 2007, Chevron’s taxes and fees made up 10% or $25 million of the city’s revenues. In 2011, the company donated $3.4 million to Richmond’s community groups.[xx] For a city where financial hardship is widespread, Chevron’s contributions cannot be taken lightly.

When faced with community opposition about the refinery’s environmental and health effects, Chevron emphasizes the role it plays in strengthening Richmond’s economy. In response to environmental justice activists who condemn the effects on the community, Chevron asserts that it creates jobs. This is true. The refinery employs 2,000 people. Yet, only 7% of these workers hail from Richmond.[3], [xxi] With such a low proportion of Richmond workers, it is hard not to wonder whether Richmond’s residents receive enough of the benefits, and not just the burdens, of having the refinery in their backyard.

The Evolution of the Environmental Justice Movement in Richmond

“‘Well it’s been a continuing struggle, you know, a continuing struggle . . . The West County Toxics Coalition, we’ve won some victories. But the thing is, it’s an uphill battle as they say, a David and Goliath fight.’”

   –Henry Clark, 2013[xxii]

The Chevron-Ortho Incinerator

Henry Clark remembers growing up in the midst of the Chevron refinery. The “many fires and explosions at the refinery . . . would rock [his] house like an earthquake.”[xxiii] After finishing his graduate degree and starting the West County Toxics Coalition, he had his first opportunity to come head-to-head with Chevron in a fight over closing the incinerator at the Chevron-Ortho Chemical Company’s[4] plant in Richmond.[xxiv] The incinerator was releasing a carcinogen, methylene chloride, and dioxins, “highly toxic [chemicals] that can cause reproductive and development problems, damage the immune system, interfere with hormones and also cause cancer.”[xxv]

The incinerator, which had been operating under a temporary permit since 1967, continuously exposed North Richmond, including the proximately located Peres Elementary school, to these carcinogens and known hazards.[xxvi] In 1990, Chevron-Ortho attempted to get a permanent permit for the incinerator, and applied to California’s Department of Toxic Substance Control to increase the incinerator’s capacity from 70,000 tons of waste burned per year to 120,000 tons per year.[xxvii] Clark and other activists had their own demands: They “said that the company should not get a permit to expand the waste burning.”[xxviii] Instead, [t]he company should submit a plan to actually reduce the waste that was being burnt [sic] in the incinerator and phase out the incinerator over a reasonable period of time.”[xxix] By organizing the communities affected by the incinerator, including sending 1,200 signed postcards to the Department of Toxic Substance Control, the activists won what Clark called their “first major victory”—Chevron’s withdrawal of its application for its incinerator expansion and the announcement of its plan to close the incinerator. Chevron stood by these plans, and closed the incinerator doors in June 1991.[xxx]

The 1999 Refinery Explosion

Henry Clark, a community activist, first heard the “shelter-in-place” warning in 1999. This time, the cause was a malfunction in the Isomax plant heat exchanger of the Chevron Richmond refinery, the area where heavy oil is converted into gasoline.[xxxi] Richmond residents heard the explosion roughly 20 minutes before they were told to stay indoors with their windows locked, doors closed, and fireplace flues shut. In response to news of the warning system’s delay, a Health Services Department spokeswoman admitted, “‘The system is not officially up and running.’”[xxxii] Although this was an obvious failure of the safety infrastructure, having any infrastructure at all was a feat in itself.

Those sheltering in place and others standing outside could see a huge black cloud of smoke hovering over the Chevron refinery, permeating the skies of the surrounding communities.[xxxiii] The explosion launched 18,000 pounds of sulfur dioxide into Richmond. “The smoke killed trees, burned the fur off squirrels, and sent hundreds of temporarily blinded, vomiting residents to hospitals.”[xxxiv] Despite these outward signs of harm, a Bay Area Air Quality Management District spokesman reported soon after the explosion that neither an air quality monitoring truck nor peoples’ noses, which she noted were “‘also [] very good monitor[s]’” could detect sulfur dioxide in the air.[xxxv]

Shortly after, Clark declared a “‘state of emergency’” for the community, and exclaimed that refineries should be tested for operational safety.[xxxvi] Others in the community did not stand idle either. Members of Contra Costa County’s citizen advocacy group, Communities for a Better Environment, dispatched its Bucket Brigade,[5] a group of citizens armed with bucket contraptions used for testing air quality. They expediently collected samples of air in proximity to the fire, unwilling to wait for Chevron to supply the information. In their minds, Chevron had done enough.[6],[xxxvii]

Despite the fact that residents of the surrounding counties felt injured—over 50,000 plaintiffs entered into various class actions against Chevron claiming injuries from the fire—Chevron continued to maintain that no unsafe chemical levels were released in the explosion.[xxxviii]

Flaring at the Chevron Refinery

Dorothy Lightner, a North Richmond resident since the mid-1990s, remembered that in the evening, “‘[i]nstead of the sun going down, you saw flames going up’” over the Chevron Richmond refinery.[xxxix] Although Ms. Lightner may not have been aware of it at the time, the flames she saw from her home are known as “flares,” and are created by Chevron when it has no use for the waste product gasses built up during the refining process.[xl] To create a flare, Chevron lights these gasses on fire, producing a product less harmful to human health than the starting compound, but still toxic nonetheless. In the mid-1990s, flares were neither regulated nor monitored.[xli]

In 2003, Clark, his West County Toxics Coalition, and other community activist groups organized and persuaded the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (Air District), the local air regulation body, to monitor and regulate the flares.[xlii] During an anti-flare community rally in June 2003, Henry Clark stood surrounded by community members and environmental advocates as he “called for environmental accountability” from Chevron.[xliii] Clark claimed that the flares were only supposed to be used as an emergency tool, in such a case where a refinery unit was experiencing a breakdown and needed to prevent an explosion. Yet, Chevron did not seem to be complying with this limited flare use policy; instead, Chevron was using flares “‘on a routine basis indicating that they [were] running a shabby operation.’”[xliv]

The community’s advocacy paid off. In 2003, the Air District began monitoring the flares, and in 2005 it adopted a regulation prescribing all area refineries to decrease their use of flaring.[xlv] The 2005 rule established flaring limits based on the amount of gas released, including the amount of sulfur dioxide released, in a 24-hour period.[xlvi] It pronounced that if a refinery releases more than the upper threshold of gas, the flare is considered “significant” and it must be reported to the Air District.[xlvii] Following a “significant” flaring event, a refinery needs to prepare a plan that describes how it will reduce its flaring.[xlviii] In August 2006, Chevron submitted a “Flare Minimization Plan,” which detailed, in highly technical language, how the company planned on minimizing the Richmond refinery’s flare frequency and gas output. The Plan outlined how Chevron would perform preventative maintenance measures to manage the gas waste appropriately and to avoid the need to flare.[xlix]

Despite Richmond’s grassroots efforts to reduce flaring, the flare monitoring system showed that from 2005-2007 Chevron increased its flaring by 80%. When contrasting this increase with the Shell refinery in nearby Martinez, California, which had no flares from 2004-2006, it begins to appear as though Chevron’s cost-benefit calculations led it to neglect the health of Richmond’s citizens.[l]

Today, Chevron continues to dance around the flaring regulations. On the morning of December 19, 2013, over a year after the 2012 Chevron Richmond refinery fire, Richmond residents could see flames high above the refinery. Chevron spokeswoman, Melissa Ritchie, tried to calm the community’s concerns by releasing a statement to “‘assure [Chevron’s] neighbors that occasional flaring is a normal and important part of keeping the refinery running safely.’”[li] It was unclear what Ritchie meant by “occasional,” “normal,” and “safely.” When discussing the impacts of oil companies on whole communities, Henry Clark said, “the only color that corporate executives see is green,” stressing the proposition that Chevron makes decisions based on maximizing its profits rather than minimizing risks to Richmond residents.[lii]


Part II will explore the community and judicial backlash against Chevron, and the heavier burdens imposed upon its future projects.

[1] A crude unit is the first major apparatus in the refining process. It separates the crude oil into different mixtures using the boiling points of the mixtures. By separating the crude oil at the beginning of the process, the oil can be more efficiently refined. Siemens, Crude Distillation Unit, July 2007,

[2] Sulfidation corrosion can occur when sulfur compounds are mixed with hydrocarbons at a temperature above 450 degrees Fahrenheit. Chevron, Industry Alert: Chevron Richmond Refinery Piping Failure, (last visited May 8, 2014).

[3] Chevron Richmond did not respond to my inquiry asking them to elaborate on their worker profile.

[4] Chevron-Ortho was a division of Chevron that focused on pesticide production. Party for Socialism and Liberation, Organizing Against Oil Companies’ Racism: Interview with Environmental Justice Leader Henry Clark, Mar. 1, 2007,

[5] The Bucket Brigade was first enlisted in Contra Costa County to test the air quality of nearby factories. The Brigade used the simple bucket air tester invented through a collaborative effort of Ed Masry (who became famous through Erin Brokovich’s environmental campaign) and an engineer. PBS, The Bucket Brigade, July 2002,

[6] I was unable to find results of the Bucket Brigade’s air quality tests.

[i] Toxic Chevron Refinery Fire in Richmond Prompts Shelter-in-Place [Updated], sfist, Aug. 6, 2012,

[ii] Kathy Mulady, Richmond Refinery Fire Unites Communities Divided, Equal Voice, Oct. 2, 2012,

[iii] Fire Shuts Down Major Chevron Oil Refinery in Northern Calif., NBC News, Aug. 6, 2012,

[iv] See id.

[v] Kathy Mulady, Richmond Refinery Fire Unites Communities Divided, Equal Voice, Oct. 2, 2012,; Will Kane and Demian Bulwa, Hospitals See Spike After Chevron Fire, SFGate, Aug. 7, 2012,

[vi] Justin Berton, et al., Fire at Chevron Refinery in Richmond, SFGate, July 11, 2013,

[vii] Bredan Reddall and Erwin Seba, Chevron’s California Refinery Fire Contained, Not Out Yet, Reuters, Aug. 7, 2012,

[viii] Chevron, News Release: Chevron Investigation Identifies Causes of Richmond Refinery Fire, April 12, 2013,

[ix] Chevron Richmond, Building a World-Class Organization:1971-Present, (last visited May 1, 2014).

[x] Chevron Richmond, The Early Years: 1902-1914, (last visited Apr. 5, 2014); City of Richmond, California. History of Richmond, (last visited Apr. 5, 2014).

[xi] Chevron Richmond, The Early Years: 1902-1914 supra note 43.

[xii] Id.

[xiii] Jane Kay and Cheryl Katz, Pollution, Poverty, People of Color: The Factory on the Hill, Environmental Health News, June 4, 2012,

[xiv] California Department of Toxic Substances Control, Fact Sheet: Chevron Richmond Refinery, December 2002,

[xv] American Cancer Society, Known and Probable Human Carcinogens, revised Oct. 17, 2013,

[xvi] Gar Smith, Toxic Tour: Drive Through One of the West Coast’s Deadliest Neighborhoods, Earth Island Journal, Autumn 2005,

[xvii] Id.

[xviii] Id.

[xix] Id.

[xx] Cheryl Katz and Jane Kay, “We Are Richmond:” A Beleaguered Community Earns Multicultural Clout, Environmental Health News, June 5, 2012,

[xxi] Id.

[xxii] Sara Bernard, Henry Clark and Three Decades of Environmental Justice, Richmond Confidential, Dec. 6, 2012,

[xxiii] Party for Socialism and Liberation, Organizing Against Oil Companies’ Racism: Interview with Environmental Justice Leader Henry Clark, Mar. 1, 2007,

[xxiv] Id.

[xxv] Dioxins and their Effects on Human Health, World Health Organization, May 2010,; Party for Socialism and Liberation, supra note 59.

[xxvi] Party for Socialism and Liberation, supra note 59.

[xxvii] Id.

[xxviii] Id.

[xxix] Id.

[xxx] Id.

[xxxi] San Pablo Bay Ecological Preservation Association, 1999-03 Chemical Blast at Chevron Refinery in Richmond, Mar. 26, 1999,

[xxxii] Id.

[xxxiii] See Smith, supra note 52.

[xxxiv] Id.

[xxxv] San Pablo Bay Ecological Preservation Association, supra note 67.

[xxxvi] Chevron Fire Sparks E. Bay Fears, Safety Audits Demanded, Global Community Monitor, Mar. 26, 1999,,

[xxxvii] Id.

[xxxviii] Brief of Respondents at 5-6, Van Tonder v. Chevron, No. A104870 (Cal. Ct. App. May 27, 2004),

[xxxix] Pacific Institute, Introduction and Summary of Findings in Measuring What Matters: Neighborhood Research for Economic and Environmental Health and Justice in Richmond, North Richmond, and San Pablo 8 (2009),

[xl] Id.

[xli] Id.

[xlii] Id.; West County Toxics Coalition, Accomplishments, (last visited May 1, 2014).

[xliii] Bernard, Henry Clark and Three Decades of Environmental Justice, supra note 58.

[xliv] Party for Socialism and Liberation, supra note 59.

[xlv] Rachel Waldholz, Residents Told to Expect Flaring as Chevron Refinery Begins Maintenance, Richmond Confidential, Oct. 6, 2011,

[xlvi] Pacific Institute, supra note 80, at 51.

[xlvii] Id.

[xlviii] Id.

[xlix] Chevron, Flare Minimization Plan, Aug. 1, 2006 (Updated Oct. 1, 2010),

[l] Chevron Refinery’s Flares Still Polluting, Report Says,, May 3, 2007,

[li] Robert Rogers, Chevron Officials Say Black Cloud From Morning Flare Not a Risk to Richmond Residents, Contra County Times/ West County Times, Dec. 19, 2013,

[lii] Party for Socialism and Liberation, supra note 59.