Last week, a major fire and explosion at the Chevron oil refinery in Richmond, CA sent toxic, black fumes all over the city. Richmond residents were ordered to stay indoors with the windows and doors shut and avoid breathing any outside toxic air. But only some residents were able to receive the messages because the warning system malfunctioned due to inadequate maintenance. According to Contra Costa County Health Services, more than 1,700 people have sought medical treatment for difficulty breathing, eye, nose and throat irritation, and dizziness.
This is the third major explosion at the refinery in twelve years, all of which have been caused by leaking pipes. In January 2007, there was a giant explosion and a massive fire with 100-foot flames that burned for nine hours. In March 1999, an 18,000 pound black plume of poisonous sulfur dioxide smoke was released in an explosion caused by a leak in a more than 30-year old pipe. In both of these explosions, hundreds of Richmond residents went to emergency rooms with the same symptoms as those caused by the latest explosion.
Like in previous explosions at the refinery, Chevron knew in advance that the plant’s equipment needed repairs. In the latest explosion, Chevron had known for two years that it needed to upgrade its piping. But they did nothing – they didn’t want to pause the operation of the refinery and miss out on record profits.
This refinery was built in 1902, and it has definitely shown its old age over the years. This refinery produces about 16 percent of California’s gasoline, over 245,000 barrels of oil per day. Rather than use any of its average $27 billion in profits every year to run the cleanest and safest refinery possible, Chevron runs the Richmond refinery as a constant health and safety hazard to its over 1,200 workers and thousands of nearby residents.
The heads of Chevron are only concerned with one thing – how much money they can make in their next fiscal quarter. Chevron is California’s largest corporation. In the last ten years, Chevron has been among the most profitable corporations in the world. The lives of the workers, local residents, the rest of us who pay outrageous gas prices – we mean nothing to Chevron.
For Chevron, the worst that can happen is it gets a minor slap on the wrist, pays a fine, and continues with business as usual. Last year, Chevron was fined a tiny $170,000 for air quality violations over a five-year period. This is nothing compared to the estimated $22 million in oil the refinery processes each day. With that kind of money, Chevron couldn’t care less about health and safety.
Chevron’s refinery in Richmond is the single largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in California. Since 2006, the refinery has been in repeated violation of the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act, continuously dumping toxins into the air and the bay. At least one third of the children who live in Richmond have asthma. Chevron pays no taxes to California for the oil it takes out of the ground. And now, after this fire, Chevron has sent gas prices to record levels to make us pay for their problems. For Chevron, pollution, health and safety risks, major accidents like this one – these are just minor obstacles on their path for profits.
As one of the most profitable and powerful corporations in the world, Chevron paints a clear picture of the priorities of the society we live in. The lives of working people – our own health, the health of our children, of our neighborhoods, our cities, of our entire planet, none of this matters as long as profits can be made.
What happened in Richmond was not an accident. It’s not an accident if it was avoidable, if it happens regularly, if it’s viewed as a normal part of business. Events like these are not accidents – they are just part of the disaster of living in this kind of society.