RICHMOND -- Organizers and community leaders think now is as good a time as any to talk about health.
In the aftermath of an Aug. 6 fire at Chevron's Richmond refinery that sent more than 9,000 residents to the hospital with respiratory irritation and other health issues, community organizing group Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment and elected officials met with about 90 residents Thursday night.
The meeting at the East Bay Center for Performing Arts, dubbed "Heal Richmond," dealt with questions about the recent fire and public health concerns.
"We want to hold business leaders and city officials accountable for the quality of healthcare and exposure to toxic fumes from the industries that are in our community," said ACCE member Dave Gesinger.
Speakers discussed the dangers of toxic fumes emitted during the refinery fire -- which sent a massive plume of black smoke wafting across the East Bay -- and the importance of both preventive care and quick action in the event of industrial accidents. Chevron's massive Richmond refinery has had dozens of small fires and accidental emissions in the last two decades.
"As long as Chevron is in business here, this won't be the last fire," said Silvia Gray-White, a local environmentalist.
The refinery fire occurred after workers discovered an old pipe -- which may have been in operation since the 1970s -- leaking at 20 drips a minute. They waited about two hours before deciding to remove the pipe's fiberglass insulation while the unit was still processing crude, according to federal investigators, causing the leak to accelerate and form a vapor cloud that ignited minutes later.
Five refinery workers were treated for minor injuries, and more than a dozen narrowly escaped severe injuries or death in what the U.S. Chemical Safety Board has called a "near disaster." Investigators have said that the decision by Chevron last fall to delay replacement of that pipe is a key line of inquiry.
Chemical board spokeswoman Hillary Cohen said the investigative agency has received a large volume of documents from Chevron, including pipe thickness measurements on the 8-inch pipe. The team has not yet been able to access the accident location due to the ongoing concern of nearby hydrocarbons, Cohen said.
Chevron spokeswoman Melissa Ritchie has said that the refinery has a good record of worker and community safety and would fully cooperate with the independent probe into the fire. Chevron has established a claim center at the Nevin Community Center and a 24-hour hotline to accept claims from residents who suffered missed work or other financial losses associated with the fire.
The work of area hospitals like Kaiser Richmond and Doctors Medical Center has earned broad praise. Each treated thousands of residents who flooded emergency rooms in the first 72-hours after the fire.
Oakland-based attorney John Burris on Wednesday announced that he and two other firms had filed suit in Contra Costa County Superior Court alleging that the fire stemmed in part from Chevron's "gross negligence."
Thursday's meeting also dovetailed into another controversial issue in Richmond, a one-cent-per-ounce tax on sugar-sweetened beverage sales in the city that will be decided by local voters in November.
Residents asked City Councilman Jeff Ritterman, a main proponent of the tax, how they can be sure the estimated $3 million in annual revenue from the tax would be used to fund anti-obesity and recreation programs, as advertised.
"Using the money for other things, that's not going to happen," Ritterman said. Councilwoman Jovanka Beckles said misusing the funds would be "political suicide," and Councilman Tom Butt said, "The only people who are telling you the money won't be spent right is the Big Soda lobby." All three signed a pledge Thursday to spend the money from the tax on anti-obesity programs.
Barbara Stauss, a longtime resident of Atchison Village, one of the housing developments closest to the refinery, said Thursday's meeting was part of a series of public events that have helped provide residents education and resources about how best to deal with the recent fire and its aftermath.
"This is a part of Richmond's healing, and it represents the progress we have made as a community," Stauss said.