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Protesters raise a banner outside the Chevron refinery during a demonstration Monday, Sept. 3, 2012 in Richmond, Calif., calling for Chevron to be held accountable for a fire at the site last month that injured workers and sickened hundreds across the region. (D. Ross Cameron/Staff)

The right to know what's in the air we breathe and what we're being exposed to from our neighbors -- whether resident, business or industry -- is a fundamental human right. This right isn't easy to exercise and vanishes without action.

The recent fire at Chevron's Richmond refinery makes the strongest case for a community's right to know, yet Richmond, North Richmond and San Pablo residents have been denied their right by local government and industry.

We protest this denial and call for environmental justice.

For protecting human health and safety, we join in the Richmond community's demand that a public access, real-time, air-monitoring system be established for educational benefit and for the "early alert" advantages such technologies offer.

Residents affected by the toxics released by Chevron's fire deserved, as the fire raged, to know what was in the air.

Two years ago, Chevron committed to supplying air-monitoring equipment that would detect gases crossing the refinery fence line, and to establishing community-based air monitoring stations. These procurements were part of an agreement with the city of Richmond that granted the refinery utility tax concessions. However, Chevron never installed any of the equipment.

The Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) operates ground-level monitoring stations throughout the Bay Area and previously offered to make the results public, but this valuable information has yet to be openly provided in real time.


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Experience has shown that these systems cannot only detect gases around the refineries where they are installed, but also gases from other pollution sources. For example, when Valero's Benicia refinery had a big hydrogen sulfide release last year, the event showed up on the ground-level systems in Rodeo/Crockett.

Why does it take a Freedom of Information Act request for citizens to get this data after the fact?

Surely, residents would benefit from knowing what's in the air while accidents are occurring.

The Chevron fire is part of a long history of refinery incidents that dump airborne toxics into Bay Area neighborhoods.

Years ago, Rodeo's Unocal refinery had a major release that remained undisclosed for days, sickening neighbors from hazardous chemicals.

Out of necessity, Rodeo residents, with help from local activist groups, forced the refinery to install state-of-the-science air monitoring equipment to detect and measure gases as they crossed the industrial fence line.

The data appears on a real-time, publicly accessible website, www.fenceline.org/xfence.php, offering residents and industry opportunity to interact over the results, mitigating future risks in the process.

A similar program is currently under development in the city of Benicia.

Denny Larson is executive director of Global Community Monitor.