By Fred Gardner in the Anderson Valley Advertiser 8/25/93

Michael Leedie, the man who passed the bullhorn around at the Aug. 14 rally outside the gates of General Chemical in North Richmond, was wearing two hats (as the saying goes). He was there as a member of the West County Toxics Coalition –a group of Richmond-area residents trying to protect themselves from the dangers posed by the oil and chemical companies– and Citizens for a Better Environment, a statewide reform organization that employs him full-time. Leedie is a soft-spoken man who looks younger than 46. Originally from a borough of New York City called The Bronx, he moved to the Bay Area in 1970. A few days after the rally outside General Chemical he was testifying before the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors about the toxics build-up in Richmond– and discussing the situation with the AVA.

AVA: What happens now?

Michael Leedie: We’re trying to get the Board of Supervisors to immediately order worst-case scenarios for all the accident models in their prevention plan. We’re also asking them to beef up the RMPP (risk management prevention plan) staff. We think there should be at least equal focus on prevention as on emergency response. They only have three contract engineers for the whole county, whereas they have eight people on their emergency response team.

AVA: Who would pay for beefing up the staff?

ML: The County would do a staff report, but the industries would pay. It’s a fee-operated program.

AVA: The hiring of more planners doesn’t sound like it would solve the enormous problems people were discussing at the gates of General Chemical.

ML: Well, people would like to have these studies done properly. We have to have the worst-case scenarios published in order to reduce the hazards. We want to keep them focused on the right thing: prevention. With worst-case scenarios, we can begin to mitigate the hazards to the county.

AVA: Who’s on the Board of Supervisors? What’s the break-down politically?

ML: Today we’ve got Sonny McPeak, Tom Torkelson, Tom Powers– I don’t know all the people involved. It’s my first time out here. Basically I can tell you it’s a pretty conservative group.

AVA: Do you feel you have an ally on the Board, or a likely ally?

ML: Basically they’re about the same. They talk a good game but they do very little for areas like North Richmond. At today’s meeting Tom Powers is claiming that he spearheaded the Municipal Advisory Council idea –where they have basically a powerless council under the auspices of the county that’s supposed to be directing activities. It remains to be seen how that’s going to work. Actually, it was the North Richmond community that called for a Municipal Advisory Council –and they didn’t have a powerless one in mind.

AVA: How much does the county get from the oil and chemical companies in taxes? They occupy enormous tracts. You’d think Contra Costa County would have an enormous tax base –and so would the city of Richmond.

ML: I’m just beginning to look into the arrangements. I know that Chevron, alone, pays a third of the tax base of Richmond. And they [the local politicians] use that a lot to say, “Well, we don’t want to put any more regulatory restrictions on the company because then they’ll move out and we won’t have this tax base. But the question that has to be raised is: When people in North Richmond –or other areas where people are on General Assistance– are forced to the hospital because of these spills, who’s going to absorb those costs? Even if they are contributing to the tax base, the external cost from these spills –when people go to public hospitals to get treated– all get absorbed by the taxpayers.

AVA: Is there a realistic possibility of these companies moving out? Don’t the refineries have to be on the bay to get the oil they’re going to turn into gasoline?

ML: It’s not just shipping –they also use the water for their cooling processes. And we should keep in mind that refineries sitting inland would be even more dangerous, because the air isn’t moving as much.

AVA: The Richmond flatlands are incredible. I had no idea how lush the soil was. People had corn growing in their yards 15 feet high. And I noticed a few acres of greenhouses adjacent to a Chevron plant. Is that where they test Ortho products?

ML: I think it’s mostly private flower growers. Nurseries like Color Spot are there because of the microclimate. That area used to be called “the lettuce patch.” People used to grow vegetables out there, it was a regional farmers market. It’s beautiful soil –alleuvial plain soil, mix it with some compost and you’ve got some real dynamite stuff. That’s why they called it the lettuce patch. All you have to do is just put a seed in the ground and the lettuce would pop up. And if the region starts to get a little depleted you can just go down and get some horse manure from the local stables…

AVA: Do you ever think aboujt how we could reorganize the society so we’re not so dependent on petrochemicals? It’s such a big job that if you ask it straight, it seems overwhelming. But if you only talk about getting remunerated after the spills, or getting a warning siren installed, you sound like the kind of reformer who thinks the system is salvagable. As Henry Clark said at the rally, North Richmond is under assault –you’re closest but all of us are under assault– and it’s not just from the big dramatic spills, it’s from the day-in, day-out emission into the air of these molecules, and their destructive byproducts and end-products. The whole system is destructive to life.

ML: I’m certainly in favor of a sustainable society. That’s something that I try to practice as much as a I can in my personal life. But people in a community like Richmond have to be realistic about what we can do. Just look at the way meetings are held. They’re held during business hours at locations that are remote from the community. Most of the people there are wearing suits. Those are the people who make the decisions on behalf of working people. Before that kind of paradigm changes, working people –and professional people too– are busy making a living. It’s hard for them to address these concerns as well as meet their survival needs.

AVA: How do you meet your survival needs?

ML: I work at Citizens for a Better Environment as a researcher.

AVA: What is Citizens for a Better Environment?

ML: It’s a statewide group. We have almost 20,000 members, mostly middle-class white professionals interested in a wide range of environmental issues such as urban pollution and changing to a sustainable lifestyle.

AVA: Doesn’t that point you in revolutionary directions?

ML: Oh, sure. But the first thing we have to do is protect the community. One of the most important things we’ve tried to stress is that we want the government and the companies to identify ways where they can reduce or eliminate these hazardous materials, these dangerous materials, these materials that break the ecological cycle. But our concern starts with the most dangerous materials and stopping the exposure of the community. And then we can start working on some of these more important longterm issues. And they are longterm. Working people have to be able to address these issues in a regular and more effective way –which means a lot of education, and that takes resources. Community groups and grassroots groups don’t have the resources of government agencies and large corporations which have big budgets and can do TV commercials and the like. You get somebody like Pete Wilson who can put an ad in the New York Times –did you see that fascist material he put out around immigration? That’s what we have to combat.

AVA: So where’s the party? Where’s our party, Mike?

ML: (laughs) I don’t know… People get nervous about that sort of talk. I’m just trying to do some basic stuff. I’m concerned that just everyday Americans haven’t exercised all of their important rights. Their rights to speech, their right to know.

AVA: Laura Nader was saying that in an interview in the Examiner. She said that people have shut up. ML: Just in terms of the black community alone, in the ’60s people were talking about revolution. But if we just excercised all the basic, minuscule opportunities that we had… I feel it’s important to exercise every opportunity before you start talking about that.

AVA: I think it’s actually the other way around. People are much more likely to support a serious revolutionary party –once they think it has a realistic chance of winning– than join the fight for a warning siren and a worst-case scenario. And lest you get nervous, Mike, when I say “revolution,” of course I mean a democratic one, in which we have such an overwhelming and impressive majority that the crowd in power finally yields. “We have the sides,” as we used to say in New York.

ML: But it’s one of these jobs that have to be done day-by-day. One of the things I tried to bring up at the march is that the demonstration itself wasn’t important. What’s important is what happens on a daily basis. That’s what I call “the tortoise approach.” You’ve got to be steady, you’ve got to hang in there, you’ve got to be patient.

AVA: Who’s in the West County Toxics Coalition?

ML: We have about a thousand members in the greater Richmond area, primarily in San Pablo and Richmond. We primarily represent low income people of color in the Richmond area –Laotian, African-American, Latino, poor whites. We have allies in other communities in the Bay Area and we’re allied with environmental groups like Greenpeace, CBE… The board is trying to focus on prevention, real reductions in emissions, and trying to work at some point on sustainable jobs and living conditions. Henry Clark is the executive director. He’s been a spearhead for the organization for many years, for a long time on his own, a lone voice in the wind. People finally may be listening to him now. The industries and the government have tried to isolate us for years. They’ve always tried to make us look like the odd man out. But I think we’re starting to prevail now.

AVA: How long have you been living in Richmond?

ML: I’ve been there about 13 years now. I live about a mile away from the General Chemical plant.

AVA: Were you at home the morning of July 26th?

ML: Fortunately, I was on my way to work. And I found out about the spill when I got there. A boy across the street from me was injured –his asthma’s flared up as a result– and other people I know were affected.

AVA: Who was the terrific woman named Michelle Jackson?

ML: She’s the executive director of the North Richmond Neighborhood House. She’s been very outspoken and on-target in representing the community’s concerns.

AVA: I know this seems too pat, but it seemed as if all the black people from Richmond who spoke were passionate revolutionaries –without a party or a program, but real serious– while the white folks from the environmental groups were all reformers calling for more planning, improved technology…

ML: I’ve been to different political discussions, heard different speakers –particularly intellectuals–talk about changing society. I’m intellectual, too, but intellectuals have a tendency to talk in very broad, esoteric terms. The concept of changing society is the same as changing a community. My example of Cesar Chavez and his disciples applies anywhere. You do it people by people. You talk to one person, you talk to another person. There are a few people who are very outspoken, who are dynamic and are able to impress large numbers of people with a speech. But the hard work involves a commitment to everyday struggle: speaking to people, being patient, listening to what their concerns are, working with them, helping them build up their confidence, helping them to empower themselves. Not to be an icon for somebody else but to allow people to be their own icons. East Palo Alto is a good example of things that can actually be done. They’ve organized a farmers market on their own. They’ve developed community garden programs. They’ve got comprehensive community planning happening. They’re trying to revive the utopian community of East Palo Alto that was planned years ago. It’s primarily African-American, with some Vietnamese and Latinos, in coalition with a number of Caucasians in the area.

AVA: When I first moved out here in ’66 I was struck by what a fabulous place East Palo Alto was –private homes with yards!– and yet and it was a ghetto. My idea of a ghetto was grinding New York tenement poverty. Harlem.

ML: Mine, too.

AVA: The day I saw East Palo Alto I realized that a ghetto could have backyards and that the riots were about something else, a complete lack of hope…

ML: That’s right, it’s about attitudes, how people are treated on a daily basis. It’s not about the level of squalor that people live in. You catch that real quick because you’ve got automatic weapons everywhere now. People are very mobile nowadays. It doesn’t take long for ideas to transmit through the society. But there’s some very exciting things happening down there. Some of the dreams that I had, they’re actually doing down there. I’ve been working with a people-of-color greening group, which is a network of primarily African Americans at this point who are very interested in changing communities. There are people in San Francisco, Oakland, Richmond and East Palo Alto. We’ve been meeting as regularly as we can. There’s been a garden created at Lake Merrit, and the food is being donated to a community home –mothers with children who are trying to make some changes in their lives. We also helped them put in their garden in the back of the home.

AVA: A voice inside me always says that utopian enclaves within this vicious system are doomed. The achievement can only be “the exception that proves the rule.”

ML: It’s not enclaves. It’s examples of what people can do. You have to start somewhere. This thing came about from a lot of hard work and talking to people and convincing them that this is the way to go, and a lot of education, and finally people started to see what was happening and they started to work at it and it’s starting to bear fruit. And other people can learn from that example. There are a lot of similarities in different communities.

AVA: What happens next in Richmond? Do you think the supervisors will demand that the companies draft worst-case scenarios? Why wouldn’t they? It’s in their interests and they don’t have to lay out any money.

ML: My feeling is that the Board of Supervisors is insensitive to the needs of people in that area. If it were otherwise, the communities would be better cared for and the toxics problem would have been addressed more vigorously. This build-up of toxic materials is not occurring in Orinda, Walnut Creek or the other primarily white, middle-class communities. To repeat: most of the important decisions are made by suits at times and places where our community folk can’t attend.

… My style, working with people, when I facilitate meetings, first I make sure where we agree. I say “We agree on one, we agree on two, we agree on three…” Then we push that aside and say “Now this is where we disagree, now what are we gonna do about this?” That’s the way you deal with those kind of things. You find out where the gaps are and you fix them. We get too opinionated and lose our grounding. It’s not good for us. We have to learn how to be more patient and more understanding. North Richmond is on the front line of this toxic assault. We are bombarded with deadly chemicals on a daily basis. General Chemical, Chevron and these other companies come before us and try to pretend that they’re good neighbors. They tell us ‘It was an accident.’ Well, the reality of the situation is, brothers and sisters, that even if General Chemical company never had that disaster on July the twenty-sixth, they still wouldn’t be a good neighbor. Will a good neighbor poison you?