Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Chevron Addiction

I woke up this morning with a cough.  Not to get graphic on yall but I was coughing up something nasty.
"I must be coming down with something", I thought to myself.

I rolled over to turn off my alarm clock and did the second thing that I often do in the morning.  I checked my email on my phone.  That's right.  I confess.  I've become one of those people who checks their email before they get out of bed.  I hate it and yet I do it anyway--I can't resist.  Something about this iPhone is like a siren calling during my first moments of waking.

This morning I opened my email to find a message from an herbalist buddy about how she wasn't going to be able to use the herbs that she's growing in her back yard because of the "toxic cloud".  I quick replied, "Toxic cloud, huh?".  I then proceeded to open my facebook to find a document that another herbalist friend compiled about ways to take care of yourself in the aftermath of "Chevron's toxic plume".  My jaw dropped as I did a news search and learned about the dangerous leak and ensuing fire that dumped an unknown amount of hazardous toxic chemicals into the air at the Chevron oil refinery in Richmond, CA.  I read through the "shelter in place orders" that were given to people in the areas down to North Oakland and coughed.

I turned around and realized that my window had been open all night.

I groaned with the realization that my cough was more likely related to the toxins I had been exposed to than a cold.  Then the next realization hit me--this is likely not far from the daily experience of many of my neighbors just a few miles away.  Eight miles from where I sleep each night lies California's third largest oil refinery.  The refinery is capable of processing 242,000 barrels of oil each day.

There's a long history of problems in with Chevron in Richmond.  Just to give you a sense of the bigger picture, here's a timeline of incidents laid out in the Mercury News

Jan. 15, 2007: Fire began when a pump seal failed on the crude separating unit. Two Chevron workers received minor injuries.
Aug. 9, 2003: An unexpected compressor shutdown caused flaring activity, causing smoke. Twenty-six people sought medical attention at area hospitals.
Jan. 31, 2002: A sulfur dioxide release from the plant resulted in a shelter-in-place alert. About 20 people were treated at area hospitals for complaints attributed to the release, including dizziness, burning eyes and throats.
March 25, 1999: A valve stem blew out, causing a major fire that released hydrocarbons and hydrogen sulfide. More than 2,500 people swarmed area emergency rooms through the weekend, complaining of breathing problems and other ailments.
Oct. 30, 1991: Chevron catalytic cracking unit leaks and catches fire, sending clouds of smelly, thick smoke over Richmond.
Dec. 5, 1991: Chevron refinery valve malfunction spreads a chemical catalyst over Point Richmond.
April 10, 1989: Chevron refinery explosion and fire. Sends clouds of black smoke over the area for six days, injures nine workers. 

Chevron's fire spreads toxic smoke across the Bay 
Monday August 6, 2012

Clearly, this isn't the first time this kind of thing has happened.  These incidents are on top of the daily exposure that the people of Richmond are subjected to because of their close proximity to the refinery.   Richmond has the highest hospitalization rate for asthma in the country--not to mention the cancer rates.  The overwhelming majority of Richmond is people of color--largely working class and middle class families.  But I suppose it would make sense to a CEO of a large corporation like Chevron to put their oil refinery in a town like Richmond rather than neighboring Berkeley which is much whiter and more affluent.  Yes, my friends, this is what we call environmental racism and Chevron is guilty of it.  

And yet today, the burning eyes and cough associated with the fire (which is not yet contained just in case you're wondering) has crossed lines of segregation and is igniting a new fire.  This is a fire of anger spreading across the east bay.  Tonight, Chevron held a town meeting that was attended by over 500 residents of the East Bay.  Among them were people of faith responding to the call and demanding something be done.

"You talk about shelter in place, but how long can I hold my breath", asked the Reverend Kenneth Davis of North Richmond Baptist Church, "...What about our children?".

I think that's the question we all need to be asking ourselves.  How long can we hold our breath and pretend that the way that we are living our lives is not destroying the earth for our children? How long will we continue to live in a way that relies upon cars for transportation?  How long will we stand by as our government wages wars citing religious fanaticism as a cover for the real motivator--oil?  How long until we can break the spell of this unjust economic system that is reliant upon the exploitation of the earth and the exploitation of our neighbors? 

I'll confess.  I'm an addict.  I'm addicted to technology.  I'm addicted to my iPhone and I'm addicted to my car.  I'm addicted to the convenience of being able to jump in my car and go visit a friend in the city.  I'm addicted to being punctual and that means sometimes I forgo public transportation over using my car because public transit in this country is less and less reliable.  

How do you break out of the addiction when what you crave is everywhere and you are surrounded by enablers?

I know I'm not the only one with this addiction.  You're reading this on your computer or maybe your smart phone and I imagine you may be an addict too.  So I'm going to make a commitment from here on out and I invite you to do the same in a way that feels right for you.  I'm going to fill my gas tank twice this month.  That's it.  20 gallons of gas is all I get.  I'm trying the harm reduction approach to kick this addiction.  It's the least I can do.  I want to be a good neighbor.  The people of Richmond deserve better.  

Richmond Residents watch as their town is covered with toxic smoke

Flyer for the community meeting held in Richmond tonight.


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