Pollution, Poverty, People of Color: Communities Across the US Face Environmental Injustices
From the house where he was born, Henry Clark can stand in his back yard and see plumes pouring out of one of the biggest oil refineries in the United States. As a child, he was fascinated by the factory on the hill, all lit up at night like the hellish twin of a fairy tale city. In the morning, he’d go out to play and find the leaves on the trees burned to a crisp. “Sometimes I’d find the air so foul, I’d have to grab my nose and run back into the house until it cleared up.”
The refinery would burn off excess gases, sending “energy and heat waves that would rock our house like we were caught in an earthquake,” recalled Clark, 68. When the area was engulfed in black smoke for up to a week after one accident, “nobody came to check on the health of North Richmond.”
With all of the frequent explosions and fires that sent children fleeing schools, parks and a swimming pool within a mile of the refinery, “we just hoped that nothing happened that would blow everybody up,” Clark said. “People still wonder when the next big accident is going to happen.”
For 100 years, people, mostly blacks, have lived next door to the booming Chevron Richmond Refinery built by Standard Oil, a plant so huge it can process 240,000 barrels of crude oil a day. Hundreds of tanks holding millions of barrels of raw crude dot 2,900 acres of property on a hilly peninsula overlooking the Pacific Ocean and San Francisco Bay. Five thousand miles of pipeline there move gasoline, jet fuel, diesel and other chemical products.
During World War II, African Americans like Clark’s family moved to homes in the shadow of this refinery because they had nowhere else to go. Coming to California looking for opportunity, they quickly learned that white neighborhoods and subdivisions didn’t want them.