From WILL PARRISH
East Bay groups are attempting to prevent the region from playing a major role in a climate disaster.
In the late afternoon of Aug. 6, 2012, a rupture in a fuel pipe at the Chevron refinery in Richmond released a geyser of hot milky-white vapor that engulfed 19 employees. The workers fled, and two minutes later, the cloud ignited into a torrent of flames that ripped through several buildings. A massive plume of black smoke blew east and northeast, sprinkling residents of Richmond and San Pablo with toxic chemicals and particles. In the weeks that followed, more than 15,000 local residents went to the hospital, mostly with respiratory ailments.
Ninety minutes after the fire began, Chevron spokesperson Heather Kulp attempted to deflect blame for the disaster onto two of the refinery’s most persistent watchdogs: the environmental justice groups Communities for a Better Environment and the Asian Pacific Environmental Network. The organizations had jointly won a 2010 lawsuit against Chevron, blocking the refinery’s attempt to develop new infrastructure for handling higher polluting grades of oil. Chevron was in the midst of negotiating with the city of Richmond concerning a scaled-down version of its proposal. In a press conference, the smoke cloud billowing behind her, Kulp blamed the disaster on “environmentalists and the community that have not let us modernize our refinery,” alleging that the company had been forced to operate with aging equipment that consequently burst into flames.
Kulp later retracted her statement, and a U.S. Chemical Safety Board examination ruled that a pivotal factor in the explosion was rapid corrosion of pipe caused by the refinery’s reliance on oil with high sulfur content. Ironically, the same groups that Kulp attempted to scapegoat had warned of this possibility for several years. During their environmental campaigns, they repeatedly pointed out that the refinery’s switch to dirtier crude risked more frequent leaks and spills.