Once a story has spent a day on the news, it seems like it doesn’t get any other views.
How many times have you encountered a news article covering a captivating story that you may not have had any idea of? And it’s interesting while you read about it, but after that, you cease to see any more coverage of that story? Pretty soon, it is something of a distant memory, as you have moved onto a new story that has captured your attention. This seemed to occur in regard to the harmful effects of Richmond’s oil conglomerates and pollution.
Dating back to the late 20th century, Contra Costa County was considered one of the deadliest places to live in the United States. The city of Richmond was the main focus of this statistic, but for reasons one wouldn’t expect. Usually when you hear the word “dangerous,” it is assumed to be associated with statistics on crime that jeopardizes the safety of residents.
But the dangerous criminal that makes Richmond and Contra Costa County so deadly happens to be one of the largest oil companies in the world, Chevron. The release of toxic gases contaminating the air, explosions and fires came as a result of Chevron practicing unsafe industrial habits. The release of these gases has proved to be dangerous for the residents of a city with such a rich history.
The city of Richmond was once a thriving industrial hub that many workers traveled to in order to participate in World War II efforts. At the end of the war, those who could afford to leave Richmond did so, leading to a steady decrease in population. Left behind was a large population of people of color living in a city that was left in shambles. Unpaved streets, garbage as far as the eye could see — the town required severe redevelopment.
It was an easy compromise for those who remained to stay in the city, as it was accessible and contained affordable low-income properties that families could move into as they made the city their new home. One important factor that many were not aware of was that these low-income residences were located very close to refineries that unleashed environmental hazards. Since communities of color were segregated into these dangerous zones that they could not afford to move out of, they received the majority of the adverse outcomes associated with pollution and the burning of fossil fuels: asthma attacks, pneumonia, cardiovascular illnesses, chronic bronchitis and even premature deaths.
Though Chevron was the first perpetrator, there was a chain reaction as other oil companies came to join the club. Now, the residents of Richmond are surrounded by “a ring of five major oil refineries, three chemical companies, eight Superfund sites, dozens of other toxic waste sites, highways, two rail yards, ports and marine terminals,” according to a 2012 article in Environmental Health News. The cumulative effects of all of these sites are detrimental to the health of those who reside in Richmond.
There has been recognition of the adverse health effects the perpetrators have caused, and steps have been taken as a result. Many of the contributors have cut down a majority of their emissions to meet the guidelines adopted by their respective local air enforcers. There has also been a focus on regularly updating their equipment to keep up with the latest clean energy technology that the industry provides.
The city has also taken the initiative to shift the burden of paying for the harmful effects of pollution from the taxpayers to the companies that initiated the whole ordeal in the first place. As a result of years of oil companies negatively impacting climate change and health by releasing their harmful contents into the environment, Richmond has filed a lawsuit against these contributors. Residents felt as if these companies had purposefully misled the public on the serious risks associated with the chemical releases, and now that the misinformation has been brought to light, these same companies must be the ones to pay.
In a variety of ways, the city of Richmond has taken significant steps to address the harmful effects the pollution and fossil fuels have on its residents. The city has also made substantial growth from its past, considering the history of the town and the way its residents have been marginalized in areas where these harmful effects are the greatest. However, much more is needed in the future to counteract the years of toxic exposure that have already taken place, to ensure that a healthier future filled with longevity is on the horizon for the residents of Richmond.
Tremone Fucles is a student in the UC Berkeley School of Public Health.