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Special Report: Pollution, Poverty, People of Color
Communities across the US face environmental injustices
Part 2 of Pollution, Poverty and People of Color
RICHMOND, Calif.—“Sa Bai Dee,” begins the small, white-haired man in the lime-green T-shirt, speaking in his native dialect, Khmu. “Good evening, Madame Mayor and members of the city council,” translates the younger man in a matching green shirt, “I am Lipo Chanasack. I live here in Richmond.” Through his translator, Chanasack urges the seven members of the Richmond City Council to reduce the outsized environmental burden on the low-income, largely non-white neighborhoods beneath the city’s industrial smokestacks. He speaks of being part of a diverse, ethnic coalition that has banded together to fight for this common goal. “We are Richmond. We are inside, not outside,” Chanasack’s translator tells the panel. “We don’t need any pollution.” Then both men press their hands together in traditional Laotian nop, bow and leave the podium.
This is Richmond today: A dynamic, multi-cultural community that is transforming its political climate from a polluted company town to a vanguard in the environmental justice movement. Its jumble of smokestacks and storage tanks overlooking a port is one of the most industry-dense areas in the San Francisco Bay Area, and one of the most beleaguered. But residents have reached across racial and social divisions to achieve some of the nation’s biggest successes for environmental equity.
The topic of this meeting is a revision of the general plan, an official document that will guide Richmond’s land-use policy for the next two decades. When the process began six years ago, the city claimed it was the first in the nation to address racial and economic inequities in residents’ environmental health in its general plan. While other cities have since come on board, and Richmond’s lofty ambitions have been toned down some over time, the plan is still one of the nation’s most broad-reaching efforts to make environmental justice a part of city policy.
Not everyone agrees with these efforts. The council chamber this evening is packed with a rainbow of races and ethnicities clad in colorful T-shirts representing an array of factions. LiUNA Builds America, proclaims the shirt of one of the 111 people signed up to address the council. “I am absolutely, totally, completely in support of environmental issues,” the man says, emphatically. “However, what I am not in support of is tunnel vision with blinders.” A shirt reading Don’t Kill Our Jobs waves in the audience. And Christopher Thornberg, an economist hired by the Richmond Chamber of Commerce, warned that some of the plan’s new proposals to reduce air emissions would not only harm the city’s main industries but would hurt neighboring shops and restaurants, too. Richmond has “an economy that is finally starting to pull out of the doldrums,” said Thornberg. “This will nip it in the bud.”
The overall plan passes, although some strict air quality measures are set aside. It is a landmark event, illustrating how much Richmond has changed after years of struggle by people who historically have borne the brunt of industry’s environmental impacts.
The victories for these bulldoggish community activists have been piling up; just a few years ago, they persuaded a judge to halt the expansion of Chevron’s massive Richmond refinery and order more research into its potential effects on residents' health.
"People have heard about Richmond,” said Jessica Tovar, an organizer for the environmental group Communities for a Better Environment (CBE) who has assisted the Richmond residents. "They want to know how Richmond was able to fight the oil industry. We're making a bigger impact than we know."