By Daniel M. Jimenez,
RICHMOND -- An angry, raucous crowd of hundreds dominated a Tuesday night town hall meeting with officials from Chevron, the city and the county, shouting down speakers, arguing among themselves and, for the most part, demanding that the energy corporation do more to ensure the safety of its neighbors in the aftermath of Monday night's fire and shelter order -- or leave Richmond entirely.
"Why should any community have to suffer from any corporation that is destroying the health and the life of the community?" asked Ken Yale of Richmond, drawing cheers from the crowd. "Shut it down."
Dozens of speakers lined up to address -- and at times, berate -- the panel, which included officials from the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, the Contra Costa County Health Department and the city of Richmond.
"We take a lot of pride in our environmental performance," said Nigel Hearne, refinery manager for Chevron Richmond. "Last night, I can't say I'm proud of that performance."
Hearne was booed repeatedly by the audience as he apologized for the fire and resulting sickness that many in the community blame on the foul smelling smoke that spread for miles.
Hearne also praised the efforts of emergency responders, both from Chevron's fire department and from nearby cities that sent mutual aid.
Chevron officials announced a claims program just before the meeting, vowing to pay for any health expenses and property damage that resulted from the fire and smoke. Residents can call 866-260-7881 to learn more.
Still, attendees were angry about the fire, the effects of any resulting pollution, the warning system that they said didn't alert them properly, and what they described as a persistent problem with pollution from the refinery.
Many speakers demanded answers from health officials about what pollutants had been found in early air testing. Jim McKay, of the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, said that tests had found 23 compounds in the air. He referred residents to the district's website for specifics -- an answer that drew angry responses more than once, before McKay and Randy Sawyer, the county's chief environmental health officer, talked more specifically about particulate matter, essentially a mixture of solid particles and liquid droplets that can result from a fire like Monday's.
Air district testing showed the concentration of toxics in the air -- including ethanol, freon and benzene -- to be below harmful levels, officials said. More details on the testing are available on the district's website, http://1.usa.gov/g3616u/.
The discussion did little to quell residents' concerns.
"You talk about 'shelter in place,' " said the Rev. Kenneth Davis, of North Richmond Missionary Baptist Church. "How long can I hold my breath?"
Chevron Richmond Fire Chief Mark Ayres said that his crews were "overwhelmed" by the fire as it started, explaining the initial delay in sounding the first warning.
"It took approximately 10 minutes to push that button," Ayres said. "We can continue to work on improving that, but we get overwhelmed just like anyone else in that situation."
At one point, members of Urban Tilth, an urban farming organization that had held a demonstration in front of the auditorium before the town hall, stood in front of the dais, displaying vegetables grown in their garden they said would have to be discarded due to safety concerns.
Some praised the company, noting that it was one of the city's biggest benefactors in terms of employment and corporate giving.
"They give this community so many resources," said retired laborer Antwon Cloird. "Without Chevron in Richmond, we would be just like Vallejo: broke."
But the majority of the speakers said the economic benefits of the company's presence weren't enough to overcome the detrimental health effects of incidents like Monday's fire.
"Someone earlier (said), 'If Chevron leaves (Richmond), we all die,' " said Malik Seneferu, of Richmond. "Well, if Chevron leaves, we all die, but if Chevron stays, we all die, too."
Contact Daniel M. Jimenez at 510-262-2728. Follow him at Twitter.com/DMJreports.