On the afternoon of February 9, 2021, the San Francisco Bay near Point Richmond, California, was contaminated with between 500-750 gallons of diesel and water from a ¼” pipe leak of Chevron’s oil transportation infrastructure over the course of 2 hours. While there remain no reports of injury to people or wildlife, the event sparked an outcry from locals and environmental justice organizations. Two weeks after the leak was remediated I sought out the unfiltered responses from California Fish and Wildlife, Baykeeper, and youth climate activists with Richmond Our Power Coalition.
The city of Richmond and San Francisco Bay have seen far bigger spills and accidents than this two-hour, 5 gallon per minute, diesel leak. The scale of damage and injury from the latest leak does not come close in comparison to the two previous incidents. The two infamous oil-induced incidents were the 2007 Cosco Busan cargo ship--55,000-gallon oil spill-- and the 2012 Chevron fire that injured 15,000 people. The 2007 spill mainly harmed wildlife. Even still, the nonprofits defending the environment, and community members at large responded and reacted in a similar vein.
Chevron’s roots in Richmond, California run deep. The refinery has been in Richmond for 100 years. It is Richmond’s largest private-sector employer, with over 1,200 employees (3,000 when you add in the contracted jobs outside of the refinery itself.) The Richmond High mascot is “The Oilers”. If Chevron has a leak, a flare, or any accident it is not uncommon that residents will smell the gas or chemicals nearby. The refinery extends throughout Richmond in the form of brown
tanks on land and in the water along
wharves—where the February ‘21 leak
Managing the Clean Up
The California Department of Fish and Wildlife is California’s lead agency for responding to oil spills. Eric Laughlin is the Public Information Officer at Cal Dept. FW, he arrived on the scene shortly after the leak was reported. Eric is part of the Unified Command, which is the group that cleans up the spill. The Unified Command is made up of government and private entities such as the U.S. Coast Guard, Contra Costa Health Services, Chevron, and California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW).
Eric and I spoke two weeks after the spill, on February 22nd. He told me that the oil sheen was completely cleared up 4 days after the spill. He attributes the speed of the clean-up to the small volume of the leak, the type of fuel that leaked, the weather conditions, and the response of the Unified Command. Eric stated, “The spill was a light diesel-water mix so it didn’t stay in the environment long. This type of mix was able to evaporate more easily than say a crude oil. We had the perfect weather for diesel to evaporate on water. It was a sunny, 70-degree day and the sun breaks up the hydrocarbon molecules.”
The Unified Command’s response included setting up skimmers, containment pads, and a yellow containment boom--that is supposed to contain the spill. “There is a science and predetermined strategies that go into setting up and deploying [the boom]. It was deployed correctly that day,” Eric told me. The Unified Command concluded 14 days post-spill. Meaning, they discontinued responding. Eric continued, “After no sheen had been observed since February 19, the unified command concluded the response on February 23.” To be certain no wildlife was harmed, samples of mussels and small mollusk organisms that sit on the shores where the leak could have drifted were sent to labs for testing. As of 3/17/21, the results have not come back to CDWF.
When I asked Eric about Chevron’s response time to give a statement to the public and whether the response itself from Chevron was adequate to the spill he said, “The state agencies and federal agencies responded quickly. We were there not long after it was reported. As far as what happened from the time it was reported to when they responded, that is part of an ongoing investigation.” The CDFW continues to conduct an ongoing investigation of this incident, independent of the response, and the results could ultimately result in penalties for Chevron. It is a violation of Fish and Game Code 5650 to spill petroleum products into the waters of the state.
While there were no reports of injury or acute stress to people or wildlife from the spill, Richmond Our Power Coalition, a community of environmental justice nonprofits, and San Francisco Bay water protector, Baykeeper, seized on this incident as an opportunity to express their concerns and plead for systemic changes beyond cleaning up the leak. They tell quite a different story than Eric Laughlin with the California Dept. of Fish and Wildlife.
The Community Reacts
Richmond Our Power Coalition (ROPC) was formed out of the ashes of the 2012 Chevron Fire. Their coalition of organizations are for a "Just Transition" away from nonrenewable energy; advocating for systems that promote clean air, water, and food, especially in marginalized communities. CBE, APEN, and RYSE Center are just a few of a dozen organizations and allies that make up the ROPC. Together the Coalition, its members, and Baykeeper met for a live press conference on February 23rd.
All four groups are unsatisfied with Chevron’s response time, clean-up action, and continue to beat the same drum that they have for decades: no more fossil fuels in Richmond, and call for a just transition away from Chevron. Residents and climate activists, 16-year-old Lizbeth Ibara of RYSE, and recent Richmond High School grad, Asya Saechao of APEN, had the floor during the press conference.
“We [young people] should be taking up the most space because we're going to be the ones dealing with the consequences of whatever conscious choices Chevron and others made. I was disappointed, but I can't say I was surprised. Chevron has always and will always put profit over people and treats us as disposable.
It's not normal for oil to be spilling into the Bay, to see [fire] flares in our city, to breathe in bad air, or have high rates of cancer and asthma. This is the clearest form of environmental racism. Chevron has thrived off of exploiting Richmond, a primarily low-income community of black indigenous people of color jeopardizing our public health. Chevron is fueling the global climate crisis that will leave my generation with an unlivable planet.
We need to cut all ties [to Chevron] and ensure that Richmond no longer feels dependent on this toxic relationship with the refinery. A future without Chevon is necessary if we ever want to reach climate justice and live in a place where all of us can thrive. In order to reach climate justice, the youth need to be heard. Our voices need to be uplifted and amplified because we are at the forefront. I speak for the youth when I say we demand a just transition from Chevron now.”
Asya Saechao recently graduated from Richmond High. Here is her statement:
“I found out [about the spill] from social media and my initial thoughts were indifferent because it seems so normal.
It's almost as if I have been desensitized by all of the Chevron events that have occurred in my community.
When we [APEN] first talked to Chevron they didn't know that the oil spilled, or how it happened. It feels like they're keeping us in the dark. We want to know what's happening in our community. We want to hold you accountable because you're taking advantage of our community. Whenever I go on a run at Point Richmond, I feel like I can’t touch the water because it might be dirty. I love going fishing with my dad and I don’t feel like I can anymore. I'm proud to say I'm from Richmond. I'm not ashamed to say that. I want you to know that this is affecting my community and all the people who live here. And I just want to know that at the end of the day, how many more town halls am I going to have to attend [regarding] Chevron? There have been too many events that have happened in my lifetime and I'm so young.”
Lizbeth and Asya's statements echo the mission and vision of the ROPC, which goes beyond cleaning up the spill, and driving the clean-up boats away after the spill is cleaned. Another ally in the fight against pollution and protection of the bay waters is the 30-year-old watch group, San Francisco Baykeeper. An attorney with SF Baykeeper, Ben Eichenberg, shared similar sentiments of the youth activists during the press conference. He contradicted Eric Laughlin’s statement in the Unified Command’s response time and cleaned up measurements. Ben expressed the response time of the unified command was inadequate, saying SF Baykeeper was able to capture the spill on film and assess the scale more quickly than the polluter, Chevron. He also feels the “bad actor” (Chevron), shouldn’t be part of the Unified Command.
“Any amount of oil and the Bay is too much. Dirty fuels don't belong in our environment or in our communities, period. Chevron should have been prepared. Baykeeper's field investigators were on-site almost immediately. And what we saw was startling. The tiny containment boom was inadequate, we captured footage of oil spreading beyond the boom and heading towards Richmonds beaches toward sensitive Eelgrass, habitat, and spawning grounds vital for the fishing industry.” -Ben Eichenberg
Community for a Better Environment (CBE) community organizer, Andres Soto, a seasoned environmental justice organizer and professional, agreed with Ben Eichenberg, that the response time, the response itself, and the acknowledgment of the spill were inadequate. When I personally spoke with Andres he said, “This incident will invariably go back and show that Chevron was negligent in its management and maintenance of its infrastructure at the Richmond Chevron refinery. That is why this pipe leaked. It will also show that they have no system, other than visual to identify when an incident like this happens. Media reports indicate as well as emergency response, that it was a civilian who notified them of this.”
The environmental justice and water protector groups worry that Chevron is not prepared should an incident of greater magnitude occur. In addition, they are disappointed in the (BAAQMD) Bay Area Air Quality Management District measuring tools' inability to detect if there is an issue-by air or by water. Soto went on, “The BAAQMD said they didn't detect anything from this. We've heard that same kind of story from their district in the past, like the Chevron 2012 fire. The air quality monitoring station was only on for 24 hours a day, once every six days in a town miles away." The BAAQMD has lost its credibility in the eyes of CBE and other environmental justice groups reinforcing distrust in the system that is supposed to notify and protect its citizens. Solely relying on the words of the California Dept. of Fish and Wildlife and Unified Command does not appeal to these groups anymore.
“Chevron Does Not Represent Us”
In addition, Soto told me--and echoed the same message in the press conference--“Only 5% of the 1,200 employees at Chevron are from Richmond.” Most of the employees are from other cities in the Bay Area. Soto described the situation as, “A 100-year-old, colonial takeover and operation.”
Eric Laughlin and the Unified Command have signed off on the incident, putting any short-term consequences from the spill to rest and essentially ending their emergency response. However, the ability to connect long-term health consequences for people, wildlife, or the environment, are challenging, and the frustration is felt throughout ROPC, and is yet another concern that ROPC and others have over Chevron’s continued existence and operation.
The bottom line for ROPC, CBE, Baykeeper, and other Richmond residents who want environmental justice for the people of Richmond is the removal of toxic fossil fuels from the city's economy, ending a relationship with Chevron, and transitioning to a renewable future, via a Just Transition. A just transition defined by ROPC’s Katherine Ramos is, “Living and existing in a regenerative economy, a regenerative ecosystem, which is something that doesn't just take from its people, but it also gives back. It reciprocates. It offers solutions that help us live beyond survival, grounded in communion with the land and the water.” Starting March 18th, the coalition will have monthly town halls dedicated to the Just Transition.
While the spill was a near-miss in size and harm and perhaps a best-case scenario situation, the Richmond youth climate activists, water protectors, and environmental community at large voiced strong declarations in their stance on moving away from fossil fuels, removing Chevron from their community, and plea for a Just Transition to a renewable energy future that values people over profit.