Richmond is emblematic of a movement underway across the nation. Environmental justice is a growing effort to address a dangerous divide: Minority and low-income communities tend to encounter far greater environmental risks and far less protection than more affluent, white communities. Major forces behind this are racial segregation and discrimination, income gaps and social inequality, coupled with a politically powerless and naïve populace unable to advocate for itself.
Similar efforts are taking place nationwide, such as a coalition of African-Americans and Latinos stopping a sewage treatment plant from being built in their Northern Manhattan neighborhood, and a multicultural group in Boston helping local communities fight, among other things, a diesel power plant slated to be built next to an elementary school.
“These are environmental sacrifice zones that the environmental justice movement has been fighting for 30 years,” said Robert Bullard, dean of the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University, who is considered the “father” of environmental justice.
Polluting poor, minority neighborhoods “is often seen as the price of doing business,” he said. “When you elevate the rights of corporations to pollute over the rights of people to have a clean environment, then you get this pattern of unequal protection. That's why we get communities like Richmond.”
In Richmond, population 103,701, one in six residents lives below the federal poverty level, and more than eight in 10 are people of color, according to 2010 U.S. Census data. In North Richmond, next to one of the nation’s largest refineries, 97 percent of residents are non-white and nearly one in four live in poverty.
The plight of Richmond, within a ring of five refineries, three chemical plants, eight Superfund sites and numerous other pollution sources, has turned many local residents of all colors into activists, and drawn the attention of sociologists, legal scholars and scientists.
Now its city hall is an example of one that is “listening to and forced to respond to environmental justice activists,” said Jason Corburn, an associate professor of city and regional planning in the school of public health at UC-Berkeley. He studies environmental justice movements and was an advisor on early stages of developing the new general plan. “Organizations like APEN [Asian Pacific Environmental Network] were instrumental in the last couple of years in shifting the balance of power at the city council,”
Throughout Richmond’s past, Corburn said, “the city was very much in the pocket of Chevron.” A refinery operating in Richmond since 1901, first as Standard Oil and later as the Chevron Corporation, had long been the city’s biggest single source of tax revenues – and air pollution. Officials often made decisions that benefited industry without taking into account the risks to residents. Despite having had an African-American majority on the city council since 1988, ethnic communities had little voice in local politics, according to Corburn and others who follow the environmental justice movement in Richmond. So in the lead-up to the 2004 election, when APEN joined with organizations of African-Americans, Latinos and others to elect new leaders, it was, in Corburn’s words, “a major win.”
Andrès Soto, co-founder of the Richmond Progressive Alliance, credits this cross-cultural cooperation with bringing about the changes in the city council, and ultimately, the new city plan. “If it was not for the creation of a multi-ethnic collaboration, none of this would have happened,” said Soto, a lifetime Richmond resident who, in his other job, plays Latin music at Bay Area venues. “It would have been filthy business as usual.”