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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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Photo Credit: Photo by Robert Durell

 
 
 
 

Photos by Robert Durell.

NORTH RICHMOND, Calif. – From the house where he was born, Henry Clark can stand in his back yard and see plumes pouring out of one of the biggest oil refineries in the United States. As 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. In the morning, he'd go out to play and find the leaves on the trees burned to a crisp. "Sometimes I'd find the air so foul, I'd have to grab my nose and run back into the house until it cleared up," he said.

The refinery would burn off excess gases, sending "energy and heat waves that would rock our house like we were caught in an earthquake," recalled Clark, 68. When the area was engulfed in black smoke for up to a week after one accident, "nobody came to check on the health of North Richmond."

With all of the frequent explosions and fires that sent children fleeing schools, parks and a swimming pool within a mile of the refinery, "we just hoped that nothing happened that would blow everybody up,'' Clark said. "People still wonder when the next big accident is going to happen.”

For 100 years, people, mostly blacks, have lived next door to the booming Chevron Richmond Refinery built by Standard Oil, a plant so huge it can process 240,000 barrels of crude oil a day. Hundreds of tanks holding millions of barrels of raw crude dot 2,900 acres of property on a hilly peninsula overlooking the Pacific Ocean and San Francisco Bay. Five thousand miles of pipeline there move gasoline, jet fuel, diesel and other chemical products.

During World War II, African Americans like Clark's family moved to homes in the shadow of this refinery because they had nowhere else to go. Coming to California looking for opportunity, they quickly learned that white neighborhoods and subdivisions didn't want them.

In North Richmond – the tiny, unincorporated neighbor of Richmond – Latinos, blacks and Asians make up 97 percent of the 3,717 residents, compared with 82.9 percent in Richmond and 59.9 percent in California, according to 2010 U.S. Census figures. 

The people of Richmond live within a ring of five oil refineries, three chemical plants, eight Superfund sites, dozens of other toxic waste sites, highways, two rail yards, ports and marine terminals. Most houses sell for below $100,000, among the lowest prices in the Bay Area, in the zip code shared with the Chevron refinery, and residents complain of a lack of paved streets, lighting and basic services. Short on jobs and long on poverty, there's not a grocery store or cafe in sight. The median income in North Richmond, $36,875 in 2010, is less than Richmond's modest $54,012 and less than half of Contra Costa County’s $78,385.

Low-income residents seeking affordable homes end up sharing a fence line with a refinery and a cluster of other polluting businesses. They may save money on shelter, but they pay the price in health, researchers say.

Decades of toxic emissions from industries – as well as lung-penetrating diesel particles spewed by truck routes and rail lines running next door to neighborhoods – may be taking a toll on residents’ health. The people of Richmond, particularly African Americans, are at significantly higher risk of dying from heart disease and strokes and more likely to go to hospitals for asthma than other county residents. Health experts say their environment likely is playing a major role.

It's the triple whammy of race, poverty and environment converging nationwide to create communities near pollution sources where nobody else wants to live. Black leaders from the Civil Rights Movement called the phenomenon environmental racism, and beginning in the early 1980s, they documented the pattern at North Carolina's Warren County PCBs landfill, Louisiana's "Cancer Alley," Tennessee's Dickson County, Chicago's South Side, Houston's Sunnyside garbage dump and other places across the country.While most coastal cities breathe ocean breezes mixed with traffic exhaust, people in north and central Richmond are exposed to a greater array of contaminants, many of them at higher concentrations. Included are benzene, mercury and other hazardous air pollutants that have been linked to cancer, reproductive problems and neurological effects. People can’t escape the fumes indoors, either. One  study showed that some of the industrial pollutants are inside Richmond homes.

 
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