A fire at the Chevron Richmond oil refinery in Richmond, California, on Monday August 6 has community members outraged and worried after a massive toxic cloud was spewed into the east San Francisco Bay area sky at 6:30 p.m. Two columns of flames could be seen from many points in the surrounding area, transforming into a foreboding black cloud that would continue rising into the sky well into the night, according to CBS News. More than 4,000 people were treated at local hospitals and medical centers for respiratory problems and eye irritation.
Responding to the accident, Chevron held a public meeting on Friday August 10, attended by hundreds of people, and set up a claim center where victims who were poisoned by the toxic fallout could file for recompense from the company. The Associated Press reported that as of Friday August 10, about 3,800 claims had been filed by people seeking modest amounts to cover medical costs.
The fire originated in the number-four crude distilling unit, and Chevron's accident report claims that while "an unknown amount of hydrocarbon was combusted … emissions from the fire have not yet been determined. Analysis results to date … provides no evidence of adverse air quality impacts associated with the fire."
But residents were not reassured.
"I’m really angry. This has been really scary, and I don't normally get scared,” said Pennie Opal Plant, who was born and raised in the area. “It wasn’t just a fire. There were four explosions."
Safety protocols and systems in the event of these types of accidents failed, she said.
"People are supposed to get phone calls, but many people didn't get phone calls, and not all of the sirens worked. For over a week now I've been feeling as if I swallowed jalapeño juice," she told ICTMN.
Plant and her husband, American Indian actor and artist Michael Horse, photographed the billowing flames and watched the toxic cloud from their house before rushing to cover their garden with plastic bags and packing their bags to flee the fallout.
Richmond is a blue-collar town with the majority of its population people of color, and a significant Native American population who came during WWII to work in the shipyards and for the railroads, and later during the relocation program in the 1950s and 1960s.
Chevron is taking heat from indigenous groups all over the world, from the Ecuadorian Amazon, where it is being held liable for decades of pollution and fined $19 billion, to Alaska, where it is one of several defendants in a lawsuit filed by the Inupiat town of Kivalina, seeking recompense for climate change that has forced the village's relocation.