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Surrounded by Refineries, Chemical Plants and Toxic Waste: How One California Town Became So Forsaken

The people of Richmond live within a ring of five oil refineries, three chemical plants, eight Superfund sites, dozens of toxic waste sites, highways, rail yards and ports.

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Chevron has cut its total toxic air emissions from the refinery's stacks and equipment by 43 percent since 2004, according to the Toxics Release Inventory.

The company has made "significant investments in environmental controls and equipment over the past four decades,” said Melissa Ritchie, a refinery spokeswoman, in an emailed response to questions. Included are new burners that cut nitrogen oxides, a main ingredient of smog, and a 90 percent cut in emissions from a process called flaring to meet regulations adopted by the local air district.

"Our refinery has been a proud member of the Richmond community for more than 100 years, longer than the city of Richmond has been incorporated. We would like to be here for a long time to come,” she said.

But some toxic chemical releases, including benzene, lead, 1,3-butadiene, tetrachloroethylene and sulfuric acid, rose above the 2004 levels in almost every year since then.

For example, Chevron increased its air emissions of benzene, a known human carcinogen linked to leukemia in workers, to nearly two tons in 2010, up 420 pounds from 2004. In comparison, Alameda and Santa Clara counties have no industries reporting benzene.

It's not just Chevron. All five refineries near Richmond, including ConocoPhillips and BP Richmond, reported discharging a total of 14 tons of benzene in 2010.

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General Chemicals West also is a major source of emissions, including more than a ton of sulfuric acid, a chemical that can trigger respiratory problems, in 2010. Airgas Dry Ice put 16,884 pounds of corrosive ammonia into the air. Chevron's research site, Chevron Technology Center, reported more than 6,000 pounds of N-hexane and toluene, solvents that can affect the nervous system.

Topped off with freeway emissions, a commercial port and other factories along most of its 32-mile shoreline, a vortex of pollution swirls around central and North Richmond residents from all directions.

The city also is pockmarked by dozens of abandoned sites bearing the poisonous vestiges of Richmond’s past. One Superfund  site, a former pesticide distributor, continues to leak the banned insecticide DDT and other chemicals into a canal draining to Richmond’s harbor, where many of the city’s Southeast Asian and black residents fish for food.

Experts say any one of these toxic exposures could be cause enough for concern. But the picture is even more dramatic for Richmond residents when researchers consider the cumulative effects of all of them.

How much their health suffers, however, is largely a mystery.

Asthma and heart disease

Neighbors of Richmond’s toxic corridor experience some health problems measurably more than people living elsewhere in the region.

“Historically there have been significant health disparities in Richmond compared to Contra Costa County,” said Kinshasa Curl, administrative chief of Richmond’s environmental division, which designed an element in the city's general plan to address environmental and health inequities.

The health gap is especially striking among low-income, non-white residents, whose homes tend to cluster around the industrial sites. “People of color in Richmond live on average 10 years less than white people living in other parts of the county,” Curl said.

Richmond residents overall are at significantly higher risk of dying from heart disease and strokes, according to the Contra Costa County Health Service Department’s  Community Health Indicators 2010. African-Americans have it worst of all – they are 1.5 times more likely than the county’s average to die from these diseases.

The health inequities appear most acute for asthma. California Department of Public Health statistics show that residents of all ages in Richmond are 1.5 times more likely than those in the rest of the county to go to hospital emergency departments for asthma attacks. Again, African Americans are especially hard-hit, with asthma emergency visits and admissions about four times that of other racial groups in the county.

 
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