Smoke City

Last month, when a Chevron oil refinery caught fire in Richmond, California, thousands of residents evacuated beneath a pall of black smoke. Others stayed, sequestered in homes and hospitals, as Contra Costa County hazardous materials units visited neighborhoods, taking air samples. Orion contributor Jeremy Miller, who lives in the East Bay, sent this report.

From where I stood, twin towers of smoke could be seen rising in front of the triangular peak of Mount Tamalpais. I picked up a pair of binoculars, ones I keep on a shelf beside the back door and use often to survey the sinuous contours of San Francisco Bay and the great industrial fortress occupying the middle distance. The Chevron refinery sprawls over five square miles along the tidal lowlands of Richmond, like a city out of the imagination of J.G. Ballard.

In the short time we have lived in the Richmond hills, I have solicited the thoughts of my neighbors—many who have lived here for decades—on the refinery. Some see it as a blight. Others simply ignore it. Still others view it as an irreplaceable asset to the local economy. I have personally come to see the juxtaposition of hill and smokestack, fog and flare, sea and steel, vital—a visceral reminder of the scale of our addiction to dirty energy.

But on that day one month ago, something had gone terribly wrong—though exactly what was not yet clear. I raised the binoculars to my eyes and saw a thick column of flame where the refinery’s tallest stack should have been. Within minutes, the smoke had coalesced into a dark thought bubble and began moving east, covering the sun and surrounding hills. Then came air-raid sirens, sharp and distant. As a precaution, my wife and I herded the kids and her mother, who was visiting from Northern Ireland, into the car and drove out of the plume’s apparent path, past gawking crowds gathered on the roadside.

Later that evening, as firefighters struggled to contain the blaze, I received a call from a public radio station I sometimes work for to cover a press conference at the refinery. Driving down the hill and into downtown, I turned on one of those AM news broadcasts that dub in sounds of clicking typewriters and staccato trumpets to convey a sense of urgency and gravitas. The serious-sounding reporter said the fire, which had broken out in one of the refinery’s “crude processing units,” was still burning—a fact obvious to anyone with a sightline to the constellation of helicopters hanging over the smoking plant.

The reporter said residents in the surrounding neighborhoods, particularly those in the plant’s immediate vicinity—comprised mostly of poor black and Hispanic residents—were still urged to “shelter in place,” closing all doors and windows, turning off air conditioning units and sealing cracks with wet towels. A Chevron spokesperson dodged questions about causes and, more importantly, what kinds of poisons might be raining out of the ever-growing cloud. After the interview, the program cut away to one of Chevron’s “Human Energy” ads. “Big oil companies should invest in local communities,” said a male voice with gusto. “We agree!”

For nearly a decade, Chevron’s attempts to expand its hundred-year-old Richmond refinery to process dirtier, heavier forms of crude oil have been beaten back by this working class city of just over 100,000. In response, Chevron has embarked on an aggressive ad campaign, painting itself as, among other things, a supporter of education, a champion of social justice, a vital cog in the regional economy.

Such claims, however, must be balanced against the company’s poor environmental record here in the East Bay. The August event was the third serious fire that has broken out at the Richmond refinery in a little over a decade. This is not to mention dozens of Clean Air and Water Act violations for releases to water and “flaring” events, great industrial backfires that release huge plumes of toxins into the air.

Chevron’s Richmond refinery is no anomaly. According to a recent report from the United Steelworkers Union, a fire breaks out, on average, every week at one of the U.S.’s 148 refineries. True to form, two refineries in Wyoming went up in flames within days of the Richmond fire. The risk is by no means confined to the U.S. A few weeks later, a huge explosion and fireball engulfed a refinery in Venezuela operated by state-owned Petròleos de Venezuela. The fire grew rapidly, smothering surrounding neighborhoods in smoke and poison gas. By the time the fire was finally out, forty-eight had died and another 150 were injured in one of the worst refinery disasters in history.

I ARRIVED LATE to the press conference and was locked out. So I chose to wander Point Richmond, a neighborhood situated beside the refinery. Every five minutes or so the plant’s air-raid sirens would come to life, rattling eardrums and plate-glass windows. The air was moist—almost chewy—with a fine, suspended grit. A curly-haired woman hurried to her car, carrying a paper bag full of clothes and other items. She shooed me and my recorder away. “I’m going to a friend’s house in the city,” she said. “The air is not good. You should get out of here, too.”

Inside a bar, a few silhouettes clutched beers and looked up at a television showing the burning plant from a helicopter’s-eye vantage. Outside, a man in a shirt with a Chevron logo smoked a cigarette. He had fine features and wore sleek blade-style sunglasses fitted with prescription lenses. I asked him if he worked in the refinery. He noted my recorder and said he would not talk on tape. I tucked the device away and he divulged that he was a welder at the plant. I asked if he had ever seen a fire like this one. “I’ve been in fires like that,” he said, tracing a finger from one ear, down under his chin, to the other ear. “I got skin grafts on both of my ears and my face to prove it.”

The growing danger at refineries worldwide is inextricably linked to the changing nature of oil. As I reported last year for Orion, the world’s stocks of light, sweet crude are rapidly declining. As a result, the industry is turning to dirtier, heavier crude oils, the kind found in Kern County, California, Mexico, and Venezuela, for example, as well as the infamous tar sands of Alberta. Not only are the methods of getting this metal and sulfur-laden grit out of the ground more environmentally destructive, but the refining processes necessary to transform it into useful products are also becoming more complex, dangerous, and deleterious to human health.

Refinery safety is almost always framed as a worker safety issue, and for good reason. Brazen disregard for safety in all phases of the oil industry has resulted in a death rate eight times greater than the average for the U.S. workforce. But what of the people living beside these city-sized facilities? Refinery workers ultimately have the choice to stay or go; most residents living in the shadow of the stacks simply have no such choice.

This point was embodied most powerfully by a Richmond resident named Cheri Edwards, who waited at an abandoned bus stop on Tewksbury Avenue on the fringes of Point Richmond. She wasn’t an inch over five feet tall and spoke loudly into a bedazzled cell phone. “I’ve been waiting for two hours for the bus. I need to get to Kaiser,” she said emphatically into the phone, then offered a curt “goodbye.” I paused, introduced myself, and asked why she was trying to get to the hospital.

“Because I’m having trouble breathing,” she replied. Because of the fire? I inquired. She nodded.

I offered to drive her. Edwards told me she first needed to retrieve her insurance card and asked if I could take her to her house. From there, she said she could get a ride to the hospital. As we walked the two blocks to my car, she trailed behind, saying it felt as if an elephant was sitting on her chest. The crushing weight forced her to stop every ten or twenty steps to catch her breath. “If you have respiratory problems, you will feel this,” she said.

I told her to wait and pulled my car around to pick her up. “Bless you,” she said as she climbed into the car. She directed me to a housing project called the St. John’s Apartments. Outside, people sat on benches and stood in the street. Some took pictures on cell phones. All looked west. Across a rail yard, no more than a quarter mile away, the Chevron refinery continued to pour smoke vaguely into the night. Here, in the lowlands of Richmond, the refinery is no longer an abstract element in the backdrop but the dominant feature of the foreground—a belching industrial elephant to be reckoned with every hour of every day.

There were, Edwards said, problems even on “normal” days—by which she meant days when the plant wasn’t burning up like a Roman candle. “I’m allergic to nickel dust and have come out here some mornings and seen it all over the cars.” Nickel dust is no run-of-the-mill industrial pollutant but a byproduct of crude oil refinement classified by the EPA as a Class A human carcinogen. I told her I’d wait to make sure she could get inside as she opened the door and walked into the complex’s dimly lit courtyard.

A month later, much about the incident at the Chevron plant remains obscure. In spite of the ongoing investigation, which has revealed that flammable gases ignited after being released from a corroded pipe, little information has been given about the fallout from the fire. Was there, for example, really no spike in pollutants, as a regional air board representative told an angry crowd assembled at a town hall meeting the next day? And, if so, what explains the thousands of local residents who reported to local hospitals and clinics, complaining of breathing problems?

While Chevron and other oil companies do their best to downplay the dangers—and flood the airwaves with soothing pap when something does—it is becoming resoundingly clear that working in or living beside a refinery in the U.S. is a risky proposition—particularly if you are poor and nonwhite. A 2007 study found that 56 percent of the nine million Americans living within three miles of the country’s hazardous waste sites are people of color; in California, that percentage jumps to over 80 percent. A 2008 study released by the University of California’s Berkeley School of Public Health found the air near the Richmond refinery filled with an array of oil refining byproducts. More troubling, the study found an even greater array of refining byproducts inside the homes of residents living beside the Chevron plant.

After a few minutes, Edwards emerged from her apartment, tapping on my window and breaking my hypnotic gaze at the smoldering plant. She held up her insurance card. In her other hand, she clutched an asthma inhaler. “Bless you,” she said as I pulled away from the St. John’s Apartments, away from the smoke and toward my home in the hills.

Listen: Richmond-area resident Anthony Lopas on life next to an oil refinery.

Jeremy Miller writes from his home in Richmond, California. His report from California’s oil fields, “The Colonization of Kern County,” was published in the January/February 2011 issue of Orion. Image by Greg Kunit.


  1. When this whole debacle was happening in Richmond, SW Mass was also under a ‘shelter in place’ order due to a fire at a plant that handles toxic chemicals. Citizens are still searching for info on what may have rained down on their heads, land, farms, etc…and like the Bay Area, there are precious few answers. Jeremy Miller is right that this highlights more than a worker safety issue, but a community safety issue.

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