“You are killing us!” resident Marilyn Branford shouted out to the refinery’s general manager, Nigel Hearne, at the meeting. Dozens lined up to ask questions and challenge Hearne’s claim that for Chevron’s management “nothing is more important than safety.”
Despite persistent questioning, the panel, which included city and county officials, refused to answer a key question on everyone’s mind. What was the chemical composition and danger to health of the cloud of smoke that rose and spread ?
Panelist Dr. Wendel Brunner announced that 949 residents had so far gone to hospital emergency rooms after breathing the smoke. By Aug. 11, this figure had risen to 5,763.
The Richmond refinery has been the site of a series of fires and explosions over the last 25 years.
Many area residents at the meeting denounced the official warning system of sirens and telephone notification as coming too late, in many cases after residents had already seen the smoke or had received warning calls from friends or family. Some called for “Chevron out of Richmond.” Others argued for putting pressure on the company to make its operations safer.
Response by United SteelworkersWhile few details of what caused the fire were given at the meeting, the truth began to come out when Kim Nibarger, a health and safety specialist for the United Steelworkers, the union representing some 600 refinery workers at Chevron, told reporters about his discussions with workers there. He explained that a couple of hours went by after the leak that caused the fire was discovered, with company officials in charge hoping to fix it without having to shut down the crude processing unit and lose production.
“When you have hydrocarbons outside the pipe, you are no longer running at a normal condition,” Nibarger said. “It’s time to shut the thing off and fix it, not to try to figure out a way around it.”
“A large number of workers were engulfed in the vapor cloud,” the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, which is investigating the fire, announced Aug. 11. “Workers might have been killed or severely injured, had they not escaped the cloud as the release rate escalated and the cloud ignited, shortly thereafter.”
The Associated Press reports that the Chemical Safety Board investigators are “focusing on possible corrosion in a decades-old pipe the company inspected late last year but did not replace.”
The area surrounding the refinery is made up of working-class, predominantly Black and Latino, neighborhoods.
Leobardo Anaya, one of hundreds on line to apply for compensation from Chevron for medical expenses and property damage from the smoke and chemicals, told the Militant he was at his job at a distribution center when he looked up and saw the sky turn black. A coworker who suffers from asthma was taken to the hospital after she began to gasp for air. “We need to get together, the whole community, and fight this,” he said.
UPS worker Maria Montano said she went to the hospital after experiencing nausea, headaches and irritated eyes.
“What worries me,” said Verna, a nurse who declined to give her last name, “is Chevron is requiring that people report their medical expenses right away. But what if symptoms show up later?”
Betsey Stone contributed to this article.
‘Union struggles important to fight for safety’
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