By Fred Gardner in the Anderson Valley Advertiser 8/18/93
Richmond, a city of 80,000 people on San Pablo Bay, is the site of vast chemical storage facilities and refineries. The population is half black –a lot of the residents came here for shipyard jobs during World War II and stayed on, buying modest homes in the flatlands. There are sizable Latino and Asian communities, too. The white folks are concentrated in Point Richmond.
On July 26 a leak of sulfur trioxide from a General Chemical tank created a cloud that enveloped the city. It has since been learned that General Chemical had inexperienced employees unloading the car and there were no training materials available for them to consult. As pressure began to build and the car began to overheat, they made one phone call to a facility in Delaware, for advice from workers who had experience; but it was too late. The exploding gas escaped through a relief valve system.
Last Saturday, Aug. 14, the West County Toxics Coalition helped organize a march from a North Richmond playground to the General Chemical gates. The playground had been painted over at one point for a Spike Lee Nike commercial, and the concrete still bore the corporate logo and some supposedly African color patterns. The green and orange zig-zags on the backboards might pose some distraction, I thought as we assembled, for an outside shooter.
The mood was serious. Lucille Allen, a retired schoolteacher who is a long-shot candidate for mayor of the city of Richmond, thanked everyone for coming and handed the bullhorn over to Henry Clark of the West County Toxics Coalition, who said, “We have to take a stand against this assault… Chevron and General Chemical continue to pollute our communities and continue to deny responsibility. They have not been honest with our community. They do not treat people fairly. They try to maneuver and manipulate the community…. This is not just about General Chemical, this is about the overall toxic contamination of our communities. It’s time that we as a people stand up for our rights and our human dignity! So we’re gonna send a powerful message today, brothers and sisters! We’re fired up, we won’t take it no more!” The crowd picked up the chant and off we went, about 200 people, including a little Latin American grandma whose sign said, “They do it for the dollars” in Spanish and who walked faster than me.
The Richmond police made a statement of their own. They sent a paddywagon in front of the line –a state-of-the-art van built to transport at least 40 prisoners and be driven by Robocop. There were squad cars at several points en route, plus cops directing traffic at key intersections, plus a couple of cops on Harleys (black) who flanked us at all times, gunning their engines and once almost buzzing a couple of stragglers. No aspect of the event –not the stated intent, the nature of the publicity, the size or composition or mood of the crowd as it assembled, nor the rhetoric of the speakers– could conceivably justify the tremendous show of force. It was a tactical decision made by the brass. They were sending a message on behalf of (and to) Richmond’s corporate tenants. Star thistle and not much else flourished in the debased environment of the flatlands. There were some cat-tails growing around a marsh. People were recalling where they’d been on July 26 and what the cloud looked and tasted like. “I let that dog out to use the bathroom. And when I looked out I said ‘What a ugly day!’ I thought it was going to be a beautiful day, I had plans. Once my dog got out I couldn’t get the dog back in. I had to go and get my dog in…” Another woman went out to see what was going on because the police were redirecting traffic. Another woman: “It came across the street just like a fog. It looked just like the fog coming in.” She went in and closed the windows and doors. “It smelled awful.” She said her throat was sore for three days.
A longtime North Richmond resident named Arlene told us that once she got gassed in the middle of the night and when she phoned the neighboring chemical company the next morning, they scolded her for failing to “catch it in a bottle.”
The march ended outside the General Chemical gates in the flatlands. Michael Leedie of the Toxics Coalition (who works for Citizens for a Better Environment) passed the bullhorn around and North Richmond residents and their supporters made brief statements. A white woman named Lustig from Greenpeace who looked to be about 30 said, “It’s no accident that they build these facilities where people of color live… They’re fining General Chemical just $25,000 –that’s an insult to the community (Shouts of “Put ’em in jail!”) …What General Chemical did was illegal. They didn’t have a permit. The government withheld information on the effect of oleum and sulfuric acid, which can cause permanent damage to lung tissue, tooth enamel, and to the cornea…” She ended with a liberal wish-list: General Chemical “should become a leader” and “do a lot more disaster prevention and pollution prevention… Stringent enforcement… An end to loopholes in environmental regulations, like the one that permits storage of dangerous chemicals in railcars like just across the street.”
A woman named Margaret Hollingsworth made a plea for the chemical companies to install a siren so that people could be warned to stay indoors. “I got gassed,” she said. “I don’t ever want to be gassed again. We want a siren!” The crowd picked it up for a few repetitions.
Another woman: “The apologies that was given to me last night [by a General Chemical spokesman at the Baptist church] was an insult. Now I know what it is when the guys go to Vietnam and come back and say they get flashbacks. ‘Cause when I see a cloud now I say ‘Lord, is it another spill? Have they done it again? Listen! We don’t want to be like Jim Jones layin’ out there on the ground! We want fresh air!We may all be different colors! But we’re all made the same and we all need fresh air. The only difference is, some people get fresh air and some people don’t!”
A physician who used to work with Cesar Chavez in the UFW recalled that Chavez knew intuitively that farmworkers were getting sick and dying from exposure to herbicides and pesticides in the fields. “‘I know they are poisoning our people,'” Chavez used to tell her in the early days, before there were scientific studies. “He was especially worried about the children. And we’re seeing excess cancers in the valley… We’re sending these chemicals all over the world…”
A young middle class dude from the suburban eastern half of the county –he had the look of a young, idealistic Bill Clinton– pointed out that sulfuric acid was relatively safe compared to some of the chemicals Chevron was using and transporting on a daily basis. “People in west county have to start electing people with vision,” he said, “who will go after smaller industries… more acceptable industries. We have to have a vision of Richmond that will allow it to grow but not to continue to pollute.” Camelot may be over but some people just keep humming Ted Sorenson’s songs.
Next came a man named Denny Larson, the Citizens for a Better Environment campaign director. “What if somebody from North Richmond had done something that made 20,000 people sick?” he asked rhetorically. “They’d be in jail… These corporate officers don’t take deadly chemicals seriously. They don’t care about the community. They’re gonna come back and apologize,” he predicted cynically, “And they’re gonna set up a community advisory panel….”
Suddenly a real revolutionary had the mike: Michelle Jackson, executive director of Neighorhood House of North Richmond. “We come today with an eviction notice. We want to give them an eviction notice, because we are not benefitting from any of these chemicals. They’re ruining the lives of our children and everyone living in this area. Yesterday’s meeting was a farce! Where are our black ministers today? (Shouts of “Sold us out like Judas!”) I would like to say to the federal government: start monitoring these rails that come into our state. I would like to say to the state government: start evaluating after they get here. I’d like to say to Contra Costa County: monitor these substances, keep records, give us some data. They don’t even know what’s here. And if they don’t know how can we know? And I’d like to say to the city of Richmond: develop some type of early warning system now. They don’t need to wait. They don’t wait when it’s time to come arrest our brothers and sisters here in North Richmond. They don’t wait for fifty-seven violations before they put us in jail. These people have 57 violations, how come they’re not in jail? They put us in jail for a ten-dollar rock of cocaine! Look what these people did! Look at how much cocaine is on this property!!” (Sustained clapping and cries of “That’s right!” and “Tell it like it is!”) Arrest these big-time executives! We want ’em outa here! We want ’em outa here right now!”
Michael Leedie pointed out that cops were on the scene and for a while the dreamy chant “Citizens’ Arrest!” arose. Then a young woman spoke, the mother of three. She had a simple solution, the best liberal reform ever devised: “If they don’t like us out here howlin’ about what they done to us, buy us some housing in Black Oak!”
Three members of the Revolutionary Workers Party circulated their newspaper on the fringes of the crowd. They wore their major position statements on their chests —multiple buttons, visages of Mao and Chairman Gonzalo, slogans—and obviously thought that what they had to say was more important than what the speakers had to say. Somebody ought to clue them in.
Leedie introduced Robert Coleman, a newly elected member of the municipal advisory council of North Richmond. He was a handsome, round-faced man, very low key. “I lived in North Richmond all my life, 39 years. We’ve had a lot of accidents. My windows were blown out at least twice by chemical companies.
“We in North Richmond are fed up –at least I am. This toxic chemical spill was very bad. My eyes ran. I threw up. I almost suffocated. For a minute I didn’t think I was gonna make it. But to make a long story short, I’m glad everybody is here because I want everybody to understand that this county is a major disaster area. If we had a major earthquake, everybody in this county will die. I know you guys don’t take that seriously, but we have enough chemicals out here so that if these tanks break, it’s gonna set off a cloud that will kill everybody in this county. We in North Richmond are gonna go first, but the rest of you-all are gonna follow us. So, we’re trying to stop these chemical companies from coming to North Richmond and building. Every company wants to come and build another chemical plant. We’re saying that we’ve got too many out here now. They refuse to hear our words… My two years of chemistry and working as a hazardous waste supervisor — it just blew my mind that something like this could happen and they won’t acknowledge the seriousness of it.”
Henry Clark concluded: “It was very good to look around and see people who responded to the call to come to General Chemical today. We don’t like them coming to our community lying, pretending that they’re concerned about us.”
Clark then acknowledged his sister and nephew, visiting from Birmingham, Alabama. “As you see, 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? Let’s make no mistake about it brothers and sisters.
“That’s not what the West County Toxic Coalition is about. We love ourselves and our family and our community and our children. We must take a stand to protect our lives from these companies. We are bombarded by hundreds of thousands of pounds yearly, emitted into our communities, deadly chemicals. Fifty thousand pounds of methylene chloride, a known carcinogen. Over 70,000 pounds of benzene, toluene and xylene and some chemicals we haven’t even heard of, but it really doesn’t make a difference whether we’ve heard of the name or not, because the equation equals suffering and death in the final end. This is what we’re bombarded with on a daily basis, brothers and sisters. We should have no illusions about it.”
He started rasping towards the end. “It’s no different in the white community, the black community, the Latino community. We all have leadership –from the politicians to the ministers to the community leaders– that would sell us down the drain for a green dollar. We know that. We know that’s a fact. But the reality is, we have to take a stand and fight back, because our lives are at stake. This isn’t some kind of play or some kind of joke. This is life and death. We have to get organized, brothers and sisters, before we have a Bhopal type of disaster that killed thousands of people, and people are still dying from it today and still suffering. We have chemicals stored here, in and around Richmond, that are more deadly than that methyl isocyanate gas that was released in Bhopal, India. We have to take a stand and fight back. It’s gonna require a lot of meetings. Unfortunately, that’s the way the system is…” As the rally broke up, a kid had an asthma attack. His mother –the woman who wanted a place in Black Hawk– cradled him and fumbled for his respirator.