The so-called flare rule is considered one of their biggest successes. For more than 50 years, Chevron had vented toxic gases as a way to discharge waste and relieve pressure. Flames shooting out of the stacks was a dramatic – and all too frequent -- sight in North and central Richmond. With it came methane, sulfur dioxide and other sulfur compounds and hydrocarbons, capable of causing respiratory problems. Knocking on doors, and organizing house meetings, community groups gathered reports of nausea, dizziness, coughing and breathing difficulties. They went on to canvass neighborhoods near refineries in Rodeo, Martinez and Benicia. After documentation of flaring incidents by CBE scientists and lawyers, and boisterous public protests and testimony, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District passed a 2005 rule restricting flaring at all five oil refineries.
"It was a spectacular success," said Greg Karras, a CBE senior scientist who worked on the rule and its enforcement. Although the flares still occur, he said, “I do know that Chevron is flaring 10 times less than before the flare rule."
Richmond’s ethnic organizations started to take shape in the 1990s, after its low housing prices attracted immigrants from a wide range of countries, as well as Latinos displaced by San Francisco’s gentrification. Over time, neighborhoods on the industrial west side changed from solidly African American to Latino, Asian – many of them refugees from war-torn Southeast Asia -- and other racial and ethnic groups.
The emerging leaders included people like Torm Nompraseurt. One of the first 3,000 refugees allowed to flee Laos in 1975, Nompraseurt had lived in Richmond for more than two decades when he became concerned that his recent-immigrant neighbors couldn’t understand safety instructions given during a 1999 refinery fire. “They only have English,” he said. “Our community needs to know what’s going on. Other non-English speaking communities need to know… what the situation is in their own language.” Founder of the Laotian Organizing Project and a state organizer for APEN, the Asian-Pacific group, he mobilized the Laotian community and helped get a multi-lingual warning system in place.
End of the “corporatocracy”
In the past decade, Soto, Nompraseurt, Clark and other activists came to see the Richmond city council as an obstacle to environmental equity, so they united to push for change from the inside. Their efforts helped Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin become the nation’s first Green-party mayor. Then, three new council members they considered sympathetic to their cause were elected in 2008, turning out two incumbents whom Soto described as “bought and sold by the corporatocracy.” Chevron spent more than $1 million to support the losing candidates in that election, according to campaign finance reports.
It was a major turning point for environmental justice, Nompraseurt said. In the past, “the city council is going to vote whatever Chevron wants, we know that.”
They have great hopes that the city’s new general plan will improve conditions in neighborhoods near the city’s industrial heart. It aims to work with regulatory agencies to tighten emissions limits, to monitor residents’ health and to hold industry financially accountable for its environmental impacts. City planner Lina Velasco said that will be accomplished through “compliance and enforcement.”
Activists scored another major victory in 2009, when they sued to stop, at least temporarily, Chevron’s plans to expand its operations in Richmond. The company had already received city approval to construct a new hydrogen plant and upgrade equipment that would increase production and capacity to remove sulfur from crude oil, among other things. In the suit, won on appeal, the groups claimed that the expansion would allow the company to process heavier grades of oil, increasing emissions and endangering the health of people. The suit challenged the project’s environmental impact report, maintaining that it did not disclose the potential harm to residents.