For its part, Chevron says it has always tried hard to be a good corporate neighbor and work with local communities, pointing out that the company has been in Richmond for more than a century -- longer than the city has been incorporated. It is the city’s biggest employer, with more than 2,000 workers – 7 percent of them from Richmond. It paid about $25 million a year in city taxes and fees, about 10 percent of the city’s total revenues, according to a 2007 report. Last year, its donations to Richmond’s civic and nonprofit groups totaled $3.4 million.
“We are always happy to talk with residents of Richmond about their concerns,” spokeswoman Melissa Ritchie wrote in an email response to questions. “What we hear from the larger community are concerns around jobs and the economy.”
Strict air quality regulations set by federal, state and regional agencies protect residents’ health, she said, and the company has made significant efforts to cut its emissions. “In fact over the past 20 years, Richmond air quality has steadily improved, and is comparable to San Francisco and better than Concord and Napa,” Ritchie said.
‘We can protect the health and environment of Richmond and at the same time create jobs and grow a more prosperous economy.”
One of the oldest EJ movements
Richmond’s environmental justice movement stretches back more than a quarter-century, making it one of the oldest in the country. While the movement has its roots in early civil rights and labor struggles, the issue gained widespread awareness in the mid-1980s, when a United Church of Christ study reported that the vast majority of hazardous waste facilities in the nation were located in African-American neighborhoods.
It was about that time that the West County Toxics Coalition, a grassroots force of primarily African-Americans, formed in Richmond. Henry Clark, born and raised in North Richmond just a few blocks from the Chevron refinery, became the group’s executive director in 1986, and still works there today. “I came up during the early `60s and the civil rights and black power movement,” said Clark, a venerable figure known for his dapper wardrobe, which this day includes a white Ascot cap and a polka-dot hankie in the breast-pocket of his velvet jacket. “The saying then was to get education and come back and help your community. Always, North Richmond was what I considered home.”
His home was among the most industrial and polluted communities in the nation, routinely blasted by burning gases and thick smoke from the refinery, and next to chemical plants, a commercial port frequented by huge diesel ships and a slew of shuttered factories left over from the city’s World War II shipbuilding days.
One of the coalition’s first battles in the late 1980s, Clark said, was to stop construction of a garbage incinerator near a North Richmond elementary school. After that, the group went on to organize a 1991 postcard campaign against Chevron’s plans to expand use of a pesticide incinerator next to North Richmond. The project was eventually halted. “In terms of the campaigns, in terms of the work,” he said, “that snowballed.”
Clark and other members of Richmond’s growing environmental movement tackled a series of local issues during the 1990s, winning reductions of toxic air emissions and discharges to San Francisco Bay and setting up a warning system for residents during refinery accidents. An agreement with General Chemical and the Chevron refinery led to a new North Richmond health clinic, and the coalition also was instrumental in enacting one of the nation's strictest industrial safety ordinances, requiring plants to develop accident-prevention plans.