Stephen Zavestoski is a sociology professor at the University of San Francisco who's spent much of his career studying the dynamics of communities stricken by environmental disasters.

That includes everything from the birth defects caused in the mid-1970s by toxic waste in Love Canal, N.Y., to the 4,000 overnight deaths resulting from pesticide emissions at a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, in 1984.

But Monday was his first opportunity to experience a near disaster up close. He and his family watched from their balcony in El Cerrito, about five miles from the Richmond Chevron refinery, as a huge plume of smoke blackened the evening sky.

His first question was why the warning system performed so poorly.

"We didn't even know the fire was happening until some friends called and said if we needed to evacuate, we could come to their house in Lafayette," he said.

He also wondered how long Chevron knew it had a serious problem before notifying authorities at about 6:30 p.m.

"They've acknowledged there was a leak about 4:30," he said, "but at some point during the next two hours the problem increased."

Zavestoski studies how power relationships shape the response to disasters, and how often communities are successful at holding corporations responsible for their misdeeds.

Transparency is one barometer by which to gauge a company's accountability. Tell us what caused the fire. What can be done to prevent another?


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Willingness to address long-term health repercussions is another. If respiratory damage caused by Monday's emissions results in complications, will the company pay for a victim's treatment? (He noted that BP distinguished itself after the Gulf oil spill by reserving money for damages not yet claimed.)

"Chevron has set up claims lines," he said, "but my sense is their strategy is to pay out small claims and get signatures on two documents -- a nondisclosure agreement regarding how much was paid and for what reason; and a document indicating no further liability. People may not realize what they're signing away."

His advice to anyone who required medical attention is to tread slowly. Think long term when negotiating liability. Three organizations that can help: Communities for a Better Environment, West County Toxics Coalition and the Asian Pacific Environmental Network.

A cry for enhanced regulations often follows an event like this, but Zavestoski said laws are not as big a problem as enforcement. Plus, some accidents are unavoidable.

"When you have a complex, technical system like refining crude oil," he said, "we can build in all kinds of safeguards, but high-risk industries have what are called 'normal' accidents. We can't anticipate every possible breakdown of a safety system."

Someday, cleaner energy may make the issue moot, but for now fossil fuel production is an essential part of modern lifestyles.

"My concern," said Zavestoski, "is that when these accidents occur, they typically impact the people who benefit least from that technology. They happen in areas where you primarily have people of color, immigrants and low-income families that lack resources to move someplace else."

Those are among the folks to whom Chevron owes answers.

The professor won't be alone in watching how well the oil giant provides them.

Contact Tom Barnidge at tbarnidge@bayareanewsgroup.com,