Rashida Bee, Margie Richards from Norco, Louisiana, Hilton Kelley from Port Arthur, Texas — all residents of toxic hotspots — today went on a toxic tour of one of the Bay Area Bhopals, guided by Denny Larson of Bucket Brigade fame and Henry Clark of the local NGO West Country Toxic Coalition.
Richmond, California is one of USA’s own slow-motion Bhopal, where communities are gassed on a daily basis and subjected to the threat of an impending disaster on the scale of Bhopal. The similarities with Bhopal are startling — powerful corporations, historically oppressed communities, toxic pollution, cover-ups by polluters and regulators, and widespread ill-health among the residents. The drive up there is spectacular, a medley of thickly vegetated landscapes and the ever present Bay with its numerous bridges.
Rashida surveys the West Coast’s largest oil refinery, owned by Chevron Texaco
Tucked away within the affluence of the San Francisco Bay Area is the little toxic neighborhood of North Richmond, a predominantly african american and latino area — a third world in a first world setting.
“It is amazing to see places like Richmond in America. If this is the way they treat their own people, it is little wonder that Union Carbide treats the Bhopalis so badly,” said Rashida Bee after her tour of the Chevron legacy.
Home to the West Coast’s largest oil refinery run by Chevron Texaco, Richmond has been the site of numerous protests in recent years given Chevron’s interests in keeping the war in Iraq going. Condoleeza Rice, an ex-director of the Chevron board, is currently one of the leading spindoctors on the Gulf war.
The word “Bhopal” finds tremendous resonance among the environmental justice activists here. Not only did the aftermath of the disaster trigger a busy phase of community organising against the disaster potential and ongoing pollution in Richmond, it also inspired local communities to fight for better toxics monitoring and disaster warning systems. But as Henry Clark put it, “We didn’t get anything without a fight. Without organisation and an organised fight, we couldn’t have won a thing.”
In the 21 years of its existence, West County Toxics Coalition has made environmental justice an accepted phrase in the vocabulary of the locals and in the policy books of the city and the State.
Chevron Texaco’s contribution ot the environment of North Richmond, California
Despite the organised and growing resistance, incidents of pollution and spills are routine. In our 90 minute tour of the industrial estate, we saw inadequately remediated superfund sites, billowing clouds of black smoke from one of the numerous facilities dotting Chevron’s 3000 acre complex, stacks of empty chemical containers, the site of an old incinerator that used to tower over the school grounds in town, the seemingly dilapidated factory of General Chemicals from where a leak of sulphuric acid in 1993 sent 20,000 people to the hospital.
Much like in the Bhopal case, where the Government of India offered to withdraw criminal charges against the Union Carbide as part of a negotiated settlement, in Richmond too, the state prosecutors withdrew criminal charges against General Chemical in return for a $5.1 million settlement. In Bhopal, though, public pressure forced the Government to reinstate criminal charges against Carbide.
Just as in Bhopal, where people are fighting GOvernment efforts to siphon off compensation funds, the Richmong community had to fight a pitched battle to ensure that the $5.1 million obtained in settlement did not disapear into state funds, but was actually spent on setting up a health clinic for the community.
The Richmond community has been able to win for itself basic health services, an emission monitoring and warning system and an Environmental Justice law that calls for fair treatment of all peoples when it comes to enforcement of environmental law, they are yet to get the companies to submit an evacuation plan in the event of a disaster. However, Clark feels more optimistic about the future: “Now we have a Community Advisory Council as part of the Municipal agency. All development plans have to be approved by the council. Only companies that are clean, green and provide local jobs will be allowed to set up.”
Rashida et al at the Health Centre fought for by the local community