The pattern of neglect continues today, said the Rev. Kenneth Davis, who used to come to North Richmond from San Francisco in the 1970s to visit friends and blues clubs.
"It's like we're on an island,” Davis said. “No grocery store to get fresh fruits and vegetables and meat. The only things you can buy are drink and dope. There's nothing but old nasty rotten food on the shelves and plenty of beer, wine and whiskey.”
Davis, who moved to a senior apartment in North Richmond in 2006, said he can see the refinery from his third-floor window, and blames Chevron and other companies for his chronic cough since moving here. As a pastor, he wonders about the deeper effects pollution and poverty. "I'm beginning to think there's a correlation between the toxic fumes that we're breathing and the violence that is so prevalent in our community."
Joining the African Americans are newcomers from Laos, Latin America and the Pacific Islands, again seeking refuge and opportunity here amongst the factories and freeways in North Richmond.
Tons of trouble
Sandy Saeteurn grew up in North Richmond, a Mien from Laos who came with her mother, five sisters and two brothers when she was three months old. Her family was part of the new wave of immigrants to the Bay Area, this time fleeing the aftermath of wars in Southeast Asia in the late 1970s and early 1980s. By the time the Asian newcomers arrived, the black social clubs and much of the cultural life had pretty much disappeared as people with means fled the neglected neighborhoods. The pollution remained, though.
Some children have ocean views, some have pastoral, rolling hills. Here in North Richmond, children have chemical plants that look like magical Las Vegas, only to turn, without notice, into a stinking hellfire.
"At school, along with earthquake drills, we were practicing chemical explosion drills,” said Saeturn, who attended Peres Elementary School, across a parkway and railroad tracks from the Chevron refinery. It is one of two public schools within a mile of it.
“I remember once coming out and the playground was enveloped in smoke. The smell was really awful, a strong, sort of gassy smell, and you couldn't see a couple of feet in front of you. We were all coughing," said Saeteurn, now 27 and a community organizer.
"The teacher sent us indoors, and gave us paper napkins to put over our mouths and noses, then loaded us into school buses. We were driven around until it was supposedly safe to come back. When we got back, it was time to go home. Our parents were there waiting for us.”
One in four Richmond residents lives in areas of high air pollution from nearby industry or busy roadways, according to a city estimate based on data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Toxic Release Inventory and the California Air Resources Board.
Violations of air-quality rules are more frequent in Richmond than in the rest of the region, according to city calculations. Over a 10-year period, there were 13.1 incidents per 100,000 people compared with 0.96 for the entire Bay Area.
In Contra Costa County, the Bay Area's most industrialized county, businesses released more than 3.5 million pounds of toxic chemicals into air, water and waste sites in 2010, according to the EPA’s inventory, which is based on companies reporting more than 10,000 pounds of chemicals per year.
More than 80 percent of the county's releases come from its four oil refineries within 20 miles of Richmond -- Chevron; Tesoro Refining and Marketing Co. and Shell Oil Products in Martinez, and ConocoPhillips Refinery in Rodeo.
The Chevron refinery, which is by far Richmond's biggest polluter, released 575,669 pounds of chemicals into air, water and waste facilities in 2010, more than the whole of Alameda County or Santa Clara County, home to Silicon Valley.