Taking the Toxic Tour: Part 2
By Gar Smith / The-Edge
January 28, 2005

A bucket brigade activist in Louisiana employs one of Ed Masry's utilitarian buckets to sample the air downwind from a local industry.
The View from Richmond Parkway
With the smokestacks of Chevron's refinery visible, Larson crosses Wildcat Creek, en route to Meyers Drum, a rehabilitation station for 55-gallon drums, "the container of choice in the toxic waste industry." Meyers flushes chemical wastes from used drums and burns the residues in an aging incinerator that constitutes a major source for toxic emissions including dioxins. Attempts to shut it down continue.

"There are 10,000 50-gallon drums at this site. On a warm day, you can hear these drum tops popping like popcorn. It almost sounds like a steel drum concert -- of a very toxic variety." Larson is about to explain that most of these drums come from Chevron when he catches his breath and gasps: "Boy! Something smells bad!"

With is rows of colorful flowers, the Color Spot nursery is a welcome treat for the eyes until Larson cautions: "Those flowers are heavily treated with pesticides. That's what you buy in Safeway." A pair of workers in white "spacesuits" tend the flowers, faces obscured by breating masks and goggles. In site after site, the 'spacesuit' appears to be the unofficial uniform of industrial Richmond.

Larson circles another Superfund site filled with cargo containers and junked cars and gestures to a cement berm rising inside the grounds. "See how that's been raised and capped?" he prompts. "That's 'cause it's chock full of PCBs -- that's got some real nasties in it." A crude warning spray-painted on an adjacent wall reads: "No Loitering. No Dumping." Larson spots the sign and guffaws: "Sure! The dumping's already happened." Palm trees planted about every 20 feet along the security wall to beautify the site are sadly stunted; some have died.

The construction of the Richmond Parkway blocked the sight of the refinery, giving developers a chance to build new, upscale communities. A towering cement wall rings one brand-new housing development. "I call this FlareView," Larsen cracks. "These homes sell for $200,000, can you believe it? I don't know what that wall's supposed to keep out -- surely not the pollution."

It's a short drive from Flareview's fortifications to Chevron's perimeter fence. Beyond the chain-link fence topped with razorwire sits the remains of a vast open-air waste-pond. Henry Clark of the West Contra Costa Toxics Coaltion remembers how, on some mornings after a dumping, the leaves on the trees "would be burned crisp." The community rallied and the toxic lake was drained and closed.

Henry Clark, head of the West County Toxics Coalition, outside the General Chemical plant where an oleum explosion in 1993 caused "our closst Bhopal."
A Man and his Bucket
Larson squints into the sun toward the refinery. "Along the hillside you can see the big smoke coming from the cooling towers. The round spheres are for the lighter chemicals like propanes and butanes. The large tanks on the hillside hold everything from crude oil to partial product."

Larson lifts a 5-gallon bucket from his car. "This is the poor man's Summa container," he winks. "It costs $75." (The EPA version runs $2,000.) Larson's bucket is a translucent blue model that he brought back from a recent Bucket Brigade trip to India. Removing the lid, he twists open an intake valve attached to a clear plastic Tedlar bag. Resealing the bucket so the lid is airtight, Larson fits a second tube with a small batter-powered hand-pump and begins drawing air from the inside of the bucket. After about three minutes, Larson spins the valve shut and removes the bag. It's now ready to be FedExed to Columbia Analytical, where a test can detect 81 different compounds. (The test costs $500 but the $15 bag is reusable.)

Larson pops the hatch on his red Subaru and digs out a copy of the Chain of Custody form used to authenticate the air samples. He also uncovers a copy of the Contra Costa Times with a front-page chart showing circled danger-zones for residents living near Richmond's industrial sites. The killing zone for an accident at the General Chemical and Dow Chemical plants extends 25 miles in all directions -- putting at risk everyone from San Leandro to Livermore to Davis.

According to the nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project, 29 states have loopholes that allow "accidental" releases of pollution to exceed Clean Air Act limits. Although these "accidental" releases generate more pollution than the "routine" emissions released by the plants they are not recorded by the Toxics Release Inventory. "The first time it happens it's an accident; the second time it’s a crime," Larson says. He believes these so-called "upset releases" pose "a major secret threatening the health safety of industrial neighbors

"Sometimes the upsets or explosions go on for over a week," says Richmond environmental activist Henry Clark. "The daily emissions that my community is bombarded with -- the dioxins, benzene and xylene emissions -- are dangerous and deadly…. We need data made independently available to the pubic in real time" via a centralized, public electronic reporting system.

Because these "accidental" releases are not recorded by the Toxics Release Inventory, Larson says, they constitute "a major secret threatening the health safety of industrial neighbors. The first time it happens it's an accident; the second time it’s a crime." Activist groups are calling on the BAAQMD to create a centralized, public electronic reporting system for industrial emissions.

Henry Clark and Denny Larson join a group of young pollution-fighters from South Africa during a visit to Richmond's new community health center.
Catching our Breath in Point Richmond
Larson heads down Chevron Way past the refinery's main gate, accelerates under the freeway and heads west towards Port Richmond. "We're now upwind from Chevron," Larson says. "80 percent of the year, the prevailing winds blow the pollution east, directly over Richmond."

We drive down Chevron Way past the refinery's main gate. "We've held a lot of rallies at this spot," Larson says before lurching the car to the left, accellerating under the freeway and heading uphill toward Point Richmond. Parked on a high bluff, facing north on the crest of a hillside, the Bay sparkles to the left: Chevron's fuming stacks and the residents of Richmond cohabit on the right. "We're now upwind from Chevron," Larson says. "80 percent of the year, the prevailing winds blow the pollution east, directly over Richmond."

Spotting a Chevron tanker disgorging oil, Larson recalls another hard-fought victory when WCTC and the Inland Boatman's Union convinced Richmond to requiring vapor recovery at all marine loading ports. "First it was a local ordinance, then a state ordinance, then a national regulation."

Rolling downhill, Larson stops for lunch at Little Louie's. Point Richmond's posh collection of art galleries and hip restaurants stands in sharp contrast to Central Richmond's delapidated and deserted downtown. Larson checks his cell phone and finds a call from Hilton Kelley, a bucket brigade activist in Port Authur, Texas.

"Hilton called to say he's secured a building for his nonprofit environmental justice center. They'll be opening a health center in the old Port Arthur phone building." Larson praises Kelley's successes. The Port Arthur project started out as part of GMC but "this year," Larson says with a grin, "I am a line-item in his budget." To give an idea of what Kelley is up against, Larson explains, "Port Arthur makes Richmond look like Manhattan."

There's another call on the cell. "Let's hope it's a grant," Larson chuckles. To his delight, it is. Mitch Kapoor with Commonweal has just approved a grant of $10,000.

Some Political Realities
"There's no such thing as a local victory," Larson explains. He illustrates this truism with a cautionary tale. In 1985, after a long campaign, the Richmond community succeeded in preventing the construction of a benzene plant. On a recent trip to Philadelphia, Larson overheard some community activists complaining about a new benzene plant located in South Philly. "When was it built?" Larson asked with a sense of foreboding. "In 1985," the locals told him. "They said they built it here because they couldn't get it built in Richmond."

Arnold Schwarzenegger 2,500-page California Performance Review calls for new refineries, a quicker approval process for industrial polluters and eliminating the independent commissions that currently protect the state's water, air and natural resources. One proposal calls for closing the California Air Resources Board and handing its responsibilities to the Governor's office. According to the Associated Press, the final CPR's findings were "influenced significantly" by ChevronTexaco

ChevronTexaco subsequently wrote a $100,000 check to one of Arnold's political funds and paid to send Schwarzenegger and his staff to the GOP convention in New York City. "With all the gag orders and corporate canoodling, this smacks of the Cheney Energy Task Force debacle," Larson says. "Now we are seeing Schwarzenegger's true environmental colors. And they're not green."

Signs of Health
Despite the hazards, Larson believes that Contra Costa could become "a beacon for environmental justice" with new policies in place to protect poor and minority residents from the rising risk of industrial harm. This would require county planners to study environmental and human impacts of industrial projects -- and plan accordingly.

As Larson drives past Perez Elementary, workers are busy spiffing up the property. Situated directly downwind from Chevron, the school has been evacuated and closed many times. An incinerator used to billow smoke from toxic waste into the schoolyard. "We could get quite a whiff," Larson remembers. The children rank in the bottom 1% in the state's test scores.

For 30 years, Chevron's billowing smokestacks sent plumes of smoke over a schoolyard playground creating what Larson called a "powerful visual." Ultimately, the image proved too visual for Chevron's comfort. "That's one of the good things about the Tour. Some of the problems no longer exist: We shut down the incinerator!" In another victory, a Chevron Fertilizer Plant that stored two million pounds of anhydrous ammonia 500 feet from North Richmond homes was closed down in July 1995, thanks to community pressure.

As Larson pulls up alongside the Center for Health, Cynthia Jordan crosses the street with a smile and a shout. "How you doin,' Cynthia?" Larson responds with a grin and a hug. "Still unemployed, but I'm doin' all right," Jordan replies. "Cynthia was one of our original bucket brigaders," Denny smiles.

The Center for Health came as the result of "a long community campaign." It contains a library, a computer room, a meeting room and a community bulletin board for posting important health and political information. Dow supplied half of the funds. Chevron had promised $2 million for an existing clinic but, when that facility was forced to close, Chevron withdrew its offer. "We had to undertake a three-year battle to get [Chevron to reallocate] the money to the new Health Center."

But with money comes new problems, including jealousy, favoritism and corruption. Jordan mentions one local leader. "She now has a lot more enemies than she has friends."

The Corporate Mindset
On the drive back to Berkeley, Larson passes piles of toxic scrap metal looming over a Richmond port. Could it contain radioactive tank armor from Iraq? "We'll probably never know." Larson's Subaru pulls up behind a Safety-Clean tanker truck. "He's on his way to pick up some toxics," Larson explains. "That vehicle is essentially a Hoover." Once the toxics are vacuumed into the truck, "they'll turn around and drive the load back to Richmond." All toxic roads lead to Richmond.

It mystifies Larson that polluters will spend millions on lawyers, consultants and public relations instead of dealing directly with the communities they put at risk. The corporate mindset always seems to prefer the cosmetic change over the fundamental shift.

Larson recalls the Chevron executive who vowed to create a "stealth" refinery that "you can't see, hear, or smell." Chevron spent $1 million on a new reddish-brown color scheme that masked the massive metal holding tanks squatting on the hillside. Unfortunately, the dark paint caused the tanks to absorb more heat, which caused more evaporation, which caused more pollution. A plan to paint the smokestacks sky-blue was abandoned because the air over the plant was rarely blue. Chevron never got around to addressing the problems of noise and stench.

"They don’t want to deal on a human, personal level. That's why someone like Margie Richmond is so effective." Richard, the first African-American to win the Goldman Environmental Award, used one of Larson's buckets to prove that Shell had poisoned her Louisiana community. "Margie insists on dealing with these people on a personal level," Larson chuckles. "She'll look these guys right in the eye and say: 'Don't talk to me as a company CEO: Talk to me as a neighbor.' That really gets to them."

That, and the sight of a 5-gallon plastic bucket.

Denny Larson and GMC's Refinery Reform Campaign (a project of the Tides Foundation) can be reached at: 222 Richland Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94110, (415) 643-1870. More information is available at the following websites:

A shorter version of this article is featured in the February issue of Common Ground magazine (www.commongroundmag.com).

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