It was one year ago when a massive fire at a Chevron refinery in Richmond, California, sent toxic smoke billowing into the air about 10 miles northeast of San Francisco. In the aftermath, more than 15,000 people sought medical treatment for respiratory problems. On Monday, Chevron pleaded no contest to six criminal charges related to the fire and agreed to submit to additional oversight over the next few years and pay $2 million in fines and restitution as part of a plea deal with state and county prosecutors. Two days earlier, thousands of people marched to condemn safety issues at Chevron’s plant and to call for renewable alternatives to fossil fuels. “The community of Richmond does not deserve and will not stand for these kinds of toxic releases that impact our health and safety and also impact the sustainability of our planet,” says Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin. Last week, the Richmond City Council voted to file suit against Chevron, citing “a continuation of years of neglect, lax oversight and corporate indifference to necessary safety inspection and repairs.”
AMY GOODMAN: It was a year ago today when a massive fire at a Chevron refinery in Richmond, California, sent toxic smoke billowing into the air about 10 miles northeast of San Fransisco. In the aftermath, more than 15,000 people were hospitalized with respiratory problems. On Monday, Chevron pleaded no contest to six criminal charges related to the fire and agreed to submit to additional oversight over the next few years and pay $2 million in fines and restitution as part of a plea deal with state and county prosecutors.
On Saturday, thousands of people marched to condemn safety issues at Chevron’s plant and to call for renewable alternatives to fossil fuels. The protest was part of a wave of “Summer Heat” actions led by the environmental group 350.org. It included a march to Chevron’s refinery, where 210 people were arrested. This is 350.org founder Bill McKibben, who was among those arrested.
BILL McKIBBEN: The reason that we’re here is because Chevron is a really bad actor. OK? In the places where they get their oil, they’re a bad actor. Ask the people in Canada fighting their fracking. Ask the people in Ecuador who have had to live with their waste. When they get it here to refine it, they’re a bad actor. They sent 15,000 of their neighbors to the hospital. And they are bad, bad actors on this planet. They have nine billion barrels of oil in their reserves. OK? If they burn most of those, then we cannot deal with climate change.
AMY GOODMAN: Just before the protest, the city of Richmond filed a lawsuit against Chevron over the fire, claiming it followed more than a dozen similar incidents. This is longtime environmental organizer Andrés Soto of Communities for a Better Environment.
ANDRÉS SOTO: We know that we’re the little guys and that they’re the big and powerful multinational corporation—in fact, an international criminal cartel. But given all that, what we know is we have people power. They have the money power; we have the people power. And that’s what we’re demonstrating today. And as long as we can continue to organize, continue to bring people out, we know that Chevron ultimately is going to have to deal with us, because we can’t allow them to control our lives here in Richmond. We’re going to run our local politics, and we’re going to drive Chevron’s people out of government and return the power to the people here in Richmond.
AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined by the mayor of Richmond, California, Gayle McLaughlin. She is a member of the Green Party and among the thousands who protested Saturday. In 2011, she skipped a Veterans Day observance that was sponsored by Chevron, and later wrote an open letter to Occupy Wall Street that noted, quote, “Chevron recently doubled its quarterly profits and is brazen enough to simultaneously be seeking a property tax refund … This is a reflection of an obscene economic inequity that threatens to get far worse.”
Mayor McLaughlin, we welcome you back to Democracy Now! So, Chevron has agreed to pay $2 million. Your thoughts? Though they’ve pled no contest.
MAYOR GAYLE McLAUGHLIN: Thank you, Amy, for having me here today.
It’s the—the thought of Chevron thinking that $2 million is going to be sufficient in terms of addressing the problems, the ongoing threat that they cause to my community, is really outrageous. The city of Richmond chose to move forward with this lawsuit. I chose to move forward as mayor, because I owe it to the residents of Richmond. Our city council owes it to the residents of Richmond to pursue this lawsuit, demanding accountability from Chevron to ensure the safety of our community. Their approach to our community has been totally and willfully neglectful. We owe it to our community to totally ensure their safety and to bring forward and safeguard the rights of our community to live, play and work without the threat of injury because of Chevron and with the threat of Chevron bringing forward yet another incident that—you know, due to the lack of safety in their facilities. We really feel strongly. This is serious in Richmond, and we’re not backing down. This lawsuit is a reflection of that.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to one of the thousands who marched Saturday to mark the first anniversary of the Chevron refinery fire in Richmond. This is healthcare worker Estelle Schneider, who helped treat people a year ago.
ESTELLE SCHNEIDER: At Kaiser, where I worked in Richmond, after the fire last year, the fire affected primarily people who are older, younger, have chronic diseases or have health issues like asthma. So people whose immune system is weaker were greatly affected. But, in general, it affected everybody. We saw people come in with difficulty breathing, with a lot of coughing. We saw people whose asthma was exacerbated and who had to get emergency treatment. We saw a lot of kids who were affected with respiratory problems. And we saw skin issues.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Estelle Schneider. Doria Robinson of Urban Tilth, which operates more than a dozen community gardens in Richmond, also spoke at the rally, as she described the Chevron refinery fire’s impact.
DORIA ROBINSON: Last year on August 6, we were coming out of the last week of our summer apprentice program, working with over 50 youth to grow food here in Richmond, and the skies went dark from the fire, seeing—I could see the flame from my front porch over 10 blocks away. We had to tear out all of the food we were growing with those youth and everyone over the last six months and throw it away, because we didn’t know if it was contaminated or not. It was absolutely devastating. But it made us actually open our eyes even further—I mean, we knew, but we didn’t know, right?—to the need that we have to stand up as Richmond residents on the front line to Chevron.
AMY GOODMAN: Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin, explain exactly what happened a year ago. What time was it? Where were you? And what did you understand was taking place as it was happening?
MAYOR GAYLE McLAUGHLIN: Yes. Thanks, Amy. The incident happened on August 6, exactly a year ago today, 2012. It was about 6:00 p.m. in the evening, somewhere thereabouts. And I had just gotten home from work and was doing some further work on my computer. And it was clear that the sirens went off. And that caused us and caused me immediately to call our police chief and our city manager. And calls were coming in to me from residents saying, you know, “There’s this huge cloud of smoke traveling across Richmond. We hear it’s from Chevron.” The police chief confirmed it. Chevron called me. We started—we realized there was a shelter in place. All of our community had to stay behind doors. People had to bring in their children. For several hours, you know, we were in our homes, left there not knowing for sure whether this was going to be gotten under control or not. Fifteen thousand people were brought to local hospitals for respiratory problems that day and in the days that followed. Nineteen workers narrowly escaped with their lives. And as I said, the shelter in place for all of Richmond. There was BART, our public transit, was stopped. Buses were stopped. People were stranded at BART stations and bus stations, and people couldn’t get out of Richmond on their way home from work. It was a real disastrous situation.
AMY GOODMAN: And did you understand—
MAYOR GAYLE McLAUGHLIN: And we don’t think—
AMY GOODMAN: —what chemicals were on fire, what was being released into the atmosphere?
MAYOR GAYLE McLAUGHLIN: We did not at the time. We were certainly very concerned. I was in touch with Chevron and Chevron management, and they were saying they were getting it under control. And, you know, in the days and weeks that followed the incident, we were engaged with regulatory agencies. We had the Chemical Safety Board come to Richmond doing an independent investigation. And we learned that a pipe had been corroded to the—and thinned to the—you know, less than the thickness of a dime, and that is what caused the leak and ultimate explosion and fire, which, you know, traveled throughout Richmond and into the Bay Area as a whole. So, we think this is extremely, extremely negligent.
AMY GOODMAN: Very quickly, if you—
MAYOR GAYLE McLAUGHLIN: And Cal/OSHA has violated—has presented those fines for criminal charges.
AMY GOODMAN: If you could tell us the demographics of Richmond and the history of Chevron, just very briefly, in Richmond?
MAYOR GAYLE McLAUGHLIN: Yes. Richmond is a diverse community. We’re largely, predominately a people of color community—39 percent Latinos, 27 percent African Americans and other people of color, and whites, of course, as well. We are a beautifully diverse community. We have a history of fighting the environmental injustice of Chevron. For decades going back, community activists have battled Chevron. And in recent years, in the recent 10 years, an alliance called the Richmond Progressive Alliance has battled Chevron and battled them on the electoral field, with Chevron spending millions of dollars to defeat good, progressive candidates who want a clean city, and to support Chevron-friendly candidates. So we’ve been in this David-versus-Goliath fight for a long time. And it was really great on Saturday to join with our allies all over the Bay Area and California coming to Richmond and really making it clear that we in the—the community of Richmond does not deserve and will not stand for these kind of toxic releases that impact our health and safety and also impact the sustainability of our planet. So, we were strong and united with community activists, with health activists, with unionists, all over the Bay Area on Saturday. We even had the people of Ecuador bring forward a full-page ad in many local newspapers and other newspapers, saying the people of Ecuador stand with the people of Richmond, and saying that we have the most devastating weapon there is, and that is the truth. It was great to see that line in the newspapers. So we had the spirit of people all over the world with us, and 2,500 people marching and rallying and—to the front of the gates of Chevron on Saturday. And we definitely will be continuing this momentum, because so much is at stake, and we’re not backing down.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re speaking with Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin in California. And we’re going to go to break, come back to talk with you about another novel approach you’re taking, and it has to do with foreclosure and eminent domain. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.