Chevron Oil Spill Further Highlights Decades-Long Environmental Injustice

Chevron’s Richmond Refinery. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

by Natasha Lasky, ODP Staff Writer

This past Tuesday, local residents observed a sheen on the water near the wharf off of Point Richmond in the San Francisco Bay–the result of a 600-gallon petroleum spill from Chevron’s Richmond oil refinery. The refinery, which processes 245,271 barrels of oil per day, was able to contain the spill, though the oil has not been fully cleaned up. 

This spill caused a “Level 2” incident alert and health advisory from the Contra Costa Health Department for residents of Richmond, CA. Chevron said in a statement: “We have issued a community notice and ask the public to remain clear of the area so crews can quickly contain and clean up the released volumes.”

Why This Matters: This leak released five gallons of fuel into the Bay per minute for about two hours— enough oil to have serious implications on the health of the bay for both the residents of Richmond and the animals that make their homes in the area. 

What’s more is that Chevron’s Richmond refinery is one of the nation’s most egregious polluters. Aside from spills, the refinery has exploded in 1989, 1999, and 2012 and continues to be a health hazard for the surrounding community. Tuesday’s spill reignited calls for the city to cut ties with Chevron. 

The Aftermath: David Lewis of Save the Bay told NBC Bay Area:The particular spot near the Chevron long wharf is a major haul out for harbor seals and right now in the winter there are many migratory birds in the Bay.”

The spill most directly affected some of the bay’s most underserved neighborhoods— Richmond, North Richmond, and San Pablo — communities of color with much higher poverty rates than the surrounding wealth of the East Bay Area. Environmental disasters like this can be particularly devastating to low-income neighborhoods because there are fewer public health resources to keep residents safe. 

Oil fumes from the spill threatened the air quality and caused a public health advisory to go into effect. John Gioia, Contra Costa County’s District 1 supervisor tweeted out a warning that  Richmond denizens should stay inside to avoid skin, nose, or eye irritation. He continued: “Park District closed local beaches and petroleum washed ashore along South Richmond shoreline which will harm wildlife and marine life.” 

Yet, this type of incident is regrettably nothing new for Point Richmond, deemed “one of the West Coast’s deadliest neighborhoods” due to the acute health threats posed by the oil refineries in the area. 

What Now? The cause of the spill is still not determined; the statement from Chevron remains vague, as it refers neither to a leak nor to what the substance was, simply calling it “hydrocarbon.” County Supervisor John Gioia suspected that the leak could have occurred because “That long wharf is where petroleum products are transferred from a line or a pipeline from the refinery out into the Bay. It could have occurred in the line anywhere or with the transfer with the ship,” he tweeted.

To address the continued threats posed by the Chevron refinery, California State Assemblymember Buffy Wicks wants to introduce legislation that would raise fines and penalties for oil companies and “provide more effective deterrence,” as John Gioia wrote in a tweet.  

The refinery is one of the clearest national examples of environmental injustice. Though the oil major claims that it “recognizes the value of water as a fundamental societal, environmental and economic resource,” Chevron has proven that the Richmond Refinery cannot operate in a manner that protects human and environmental health. California’s regulators have also let Chevron off the hook for too long, hopefully, this latest incident wakes Sacramento’s lawmakers up to the reality that regulatory intervention is urgently needed.

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