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Daphne Zuniga

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People Versus Chevron

Posted: 11/10/09 10:25 AM ET

Co-authored by Bill Gallegos

Atchison Village would seem like a great place to live. It's a pleasant-looking neighborhood in Richmond, California on the east shore of San Francisco Bay. The residents are diverse. Some have lived there since the village was built in 1941. Others have discovered the neighborhood more recently. It's an ethnically diverse neighborhood with a comfortable feel, barbecues on the weekend and neighbors who know each others' names, with home prices far more affordable than most places in the Bay Area.

But there's a downside: Atchison Village has a bad neighbor. You know the kind we're talking about, right? The kind of neighbor that seems not to care about property values, or endangering the welfare of the people around them. The kind of neighbor that lets their garbage blow into other people's yards. The kind of neighbor that makes messes and refuses to admit it or clean them up.

In most places, behavior like that might get a person run out of town on a rail. But Atchison Village's bad neighbor has some clout: it's the third-largest corporation in the world.

The Chevron Corporation has run a gigantic oil refinery just west of Atchison Village since 1902. Ever since the city of Richmond was built, its residents have been breathing in the poison that comes out of the refinery stacks, or escapes from its miles of pipes. People in Atchison Village and other nearby neighborhoods report much higher levels of diseases from asthma to cancer. Kids living in Atchison Village are much more likely to be hospitalized for asthma than kids in other neighborhoods. Tests have found high levels of toxic substances like sulfur and heavy metals inside Atchison Village residents' homes, which are pollutants known to be emitted by oil refineries.

Some days Chevron's a worse neighbor than usual. There was a day in March 1999 for instance, when an explosion at Chevron's refinery -- and the resulting thick cloud of toxic smoke that settled on the city of Richmond -- sent hundreds of neighbors to local emergency rooms complaining of lung pain, burning eyes, and other problems.

But even on a good day, stuff comes out of that refinery that no one should have to breathe. Stuff like hydrogen sulfide. Toxic particulate matter. Sulfur dioxide. Cancer-causing solvents like benzene and toluene. Dioxin, and -- to name a toxic chemical with which Daphne has had more personal experience than she likes -- mercury.

This would be bad enough already, but for the past couple of years Chevron has been trying to "upgrade" their refinery so that they can refine even dirtier crude oil than before.

Which could expose the people of Atchison Village, and a couple dozen other neighborhoods just like it, to even more pollution. And that could make Chevron's neighbors even sicker.

We have some great news, though: there's a hitch in Chevron's plan. Three environmental justice groups and their talented attorneys have stopped the world's third-largest corporation in its tracks, at least for a little while. After failing to get Chevron to agree not to refine dirtier crude in Richmond, the groups Communities for a Better Environment, the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, and the West County Toxics Coalition, represented by attorneys from Earthjustice, went to court to challenge the environmental impact report for the refinery project. In June the judge ruled that the report was inadequate, partly because it didn't inform the public about whether the project would allow Chevron to process heavier oil.

Chevron has appealed the ruling. A decision on the appeal is due soon. The fight isn't over, and these environmental justice groups definitely need your support. But there's also a lesson here: a few people, with the truth on their side, can bring even the biggest Goliath down. We can stop Chevron in its tracks if we work together.