More on environmental justice in the Bay Area

Chevron's Richmond Refinery processes raw crude into fuel.
Photo by Rebecca Bowe

As part of our 2011 Green Issue, the Guardian is spotlighting several pollution-plagued areas throughout the region and the environmental justice campaigns aiming to improve public health for surrounding residents.

My reporting on this topic took me to Richmond, where Communities for a Better Environment (CBE) Organizer Jessica Guadalupe Tovar told me about how her organization worked on halting Chevron’s Richmond Refinery expansion project with a lawsuit after uncovering the oil company’s plans to start refining heavier crude, which could worsen air-quality impacts.

As we drove along a ridgeline street searching for the perfect place to photograph the refinery (Chevron doesn’t like it when people show up on site with cameras, Tovar explained), she talked about how CBE had set up a Refinery 101 workshop to inform residents about the facility and its plans for expansion. “Our job was to, A, tip people off who live here, and, B, give people the information they need to fight this thing,” she said.

The expansion has been suspended for now, but Tovar said she wouldn’t be surprised if the issue resurfaced. Here’s a video taken some distance from Chevron’s oil refinery.

I also spent a few hours in the Bayview Hunters-Point neighborhood with Marie Harrison, a Bayview resident and longtime organizer with San Francisco-based Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice.

Over coffee, Harrison told me about her experiences as a youth working at the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard, at a time when asbestos dust from the naval ships was routinely airborne. “This is not just a campaign because I live here,” Harrison said. “I have a personal history.”

She remembers being covered with dust at the end of her shifts and, after awhile, realizing that it wasn’t safe. “I became conscious even then,” she reflected, about not wanting to exchange hugs with friends so as not to spread around the hazardous dust.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “Exposure to airborne friable asbestos may result in a potential health risk because persons breathing the air may breathe in asbestos fibers. Continued exposure can increase the amount of fibers that remain in the lung. Fibers embedded in lung tissue over time may cause serious lung diseases including asbestosis, lung cancer, or mesothelioma.”

Harrison and I drove around the shipyard parcels, where Lennar’s major residential project will be constructed. We went past Parcel A, a fenced-in area situated in very close proximity to a Nation of Islam school for students from kindergarten through the 12th grade.

Parcel A sits on a hill above what was once the site of the Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory, and a decontamination site for ships returning from testing nuclear weapons during the Cold War.

Lennar’s failure to monitor or properly control asbestos dust on Parcel A during construction in 2006 and 2007 resulted in citations against the developer, and the company eventually faced a fine from the Bay Area Air Quality Management District of more than $500,000.

Around the perimeter of a different shipyard parcel were poles with mist spraying out the top. The purpose of the mist, Harrison explained, was to wet down the dirt so that hazardous dust particles couldn’t blow around – but as we drove by, we could clearly see that this method wasn’t entirely effective, since the wind was blowing the mist backward onto a grassy hillside below the contaminated parcel instead of effectively moistening the dirt.

Across the street and down the road a little, a cleanup effort at the site of Pacific Gas & Electric Co.’s decommissioned Hunters Point power plant was underway. While the facility has been disassembled, toxic residue remains in the soil, and mitigation measures must be taken to prevent it from going airborne. “When the wind picks up they’re supposed to stop,” Harrison noted, gesturing toward earth-moving equipment parked on the site as we drove by. She added that workers had become familiar enough with her that they knew there would be trouble if they deviated from that protocol in her presence.

All of these post-industrial sites are located in very close proximity to a residential area that ranks among the lowest income neighborhoods in San Francisco. Meanwhile, there are a number of other pollution sources clustered nearby, which Harrison listed off during our brief visit to a waterfront park that abuts the old power plant.
For years, Greenaction fought to have a warning sign posted in that park to let people know that it was unsafe to regularly consume fish caught there, Harrison said. When PG&E’s power plant was still in operation, some Bayview residents – particularly non-English speaking Asian immigrants – would fish in the area where the warm-water outflow from the power plant attracted marine life. At long last, Greenaction won the battle and Harrison got her warning sign posted – but it was a tremendous disappointment. With cautionary notices printed in multiple languages, the sign is above eye level and about the size of a piece of notebook paper. The font is practically microscopic, and I had to squint just to read it. For those who cannot read, there is an image of a fish with a slash through it printed in light tones behind the lettering – but one must study it closely to pick up on that detail. The moral of the story, she said, was "be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it."

Here’s a word from Harrison. You can see the sign posted in the background.

Look out for further coverage of the court hearings on the appeal of Lennar’s environmental impact review in coming weeks.

Video produced by Rebecca Bowe.

Find this author on Twitter.