Linking Students and Communities: A Case Study of the Bay Area’s Battle Against Fossil Fuel Infrastructure

by Arjun Pandava, UC Berkeley student

Contributing Writers Meredith Jacobson and Katie Hoffman

Student movements often fall into the trap of restricting their strategies and alliances to within the walls of their academic spaces.  But this restriction makes little sense, especially given that on many issues, the desires of the local community and the school are one and the same.

This is especially true when examining the struggle against fossil fuels that is currently building momentum in California.  At universities and other educational institutions all across the state, the main form of this struggle is currently the divestment movement (which recently saw the first community college district in the nation commit to divesting its assets from the top 200 carbon companies).  And while this tactic has huge promise and potential, it is one that is largely restricted to organizing among students (even though there is an increasing trend of non-academic institutions, like city councils and banks, talking about divestment).

On the other hand, there exists huge scope to connect students with ongoing struggles in local communities around the issue of fossil fuels.  From Richmond to Bakersfield to Los Angeles, thousands of thousands of people–typically low-income people of color–have to deal with carbon energy not as an abstract investment or a far-off consequence of climate change, but as a facet of day-to-day existence.  To these frontline communities, divestment isn’t about re-investing prudently for the future–it’s about struggling to survive today.

In this context, then, it could be argued that students, a relatively privileged strata of American society, have an obligation to use and exploit this privilege to transfer resources to the struggles of local communities.  After all, isn’t  the very purpose of academia to develop theories and practices to better the collective good, and especially the good of populations who have historically been marginalized from political and economic power?  The resources available to students–trained and motivated researchers, prestigious science journals, and the time and space to use it all–could prove to be critical weapons in the battles that take place at the frontlines of the war between people and Big Carbon.

Building alliances between students and local frontline communities is a critical effort that will yield huge benefits–as well as build the skills and mindsets necessary to build and progress a mass movement for sustainability.  We need to constantly be evaluating in ourselves, our organizations, and our work: what does it mean to be an ally? Working more deeply in the communities around our colleges and universities will allow us to explore this question and make truly meaningful and lasting coalitions.

Students in the Bay Area have some very unique opportunities to build networks with existing communities and their struggles against fossil fuels.  The Bay has long been a leading front in the general struggle for a sustainable and equitable society, but the rapid expansion of unconventional oil production means that the organization of resistance, and the advocacy for alternatives, must undergo a proportional acceleration.

[A longer version of this section of the essay, with a few more paragraphs and citations/links, can be found here.]

Existing Infrastructure, Existing Pollution

There are currently five oil refineries in the Bay Area, run by five different companies:

All of these refineries are located in the north-east of the Bay Area.  Four out of five of the refineries are in Contra Costa County; the exception (the Benicia Refinery, in Solano County) is located right across the waterway from the two refineries in Martinez.  These areas are populated mostly by working-class people of color; both Richmond and Pittsburg, for example, are around 80% non-White.

The environmental track record of these refineries has been less than stellar.  Many who reside in the Bay Area will remember the explosion and resulting fire at the Richmond site that occurred during the summer of 2012.  There was also a similar incident that occurred at the Tesoro’s Martinez site in late 2011, when a power outage caused most of the refinery’s systems to fail.

Accident at the Golden Eagle Refinery, Martinez–2011

Accident at the Chevron Richmond Refinery–2012

Another view of the 2012 Chevron Richmond Refinery accident

And these are not just one-time incidents; even when not exploding or catching on fire, oil refineries present constant and ongoing sources of pollution for local communities; indeed, air pollution violations are basically the industry norm:

Chevron had 95 violations, while the low was 87 violations for the Shell oil refinery in Martinez, according to the Bay Area Air Quality Management District.  Valero in Benicia (Solano County) had 224 violations, Tesoro had 164 and ConocoPhillips had 130 violations, the air district reported.  The violations include technical errors — such as a monitor not working correctly — as well as excessive emissions from the plant.

The high rates of pollution from Bay Area refineries results in dangerously high levels of toxin exposure to local residents.  A study published in the American Journal of Public Health in 2009 found that “Indoor air in nearly half of Richmond homes exceeded California’s annual ambient air quality standard for PM-2.5, often considered an aggregate measure of air pollution.”  Indoor concentrations of pollutants and toxins were also extremely high when compared to a control case, and concentrations of nickel and vanadium were “among the highest in the state.”  (Brody 2009: 600-609)

And going outside to escape poor indoor conditions accomplishes little; the air quality in Contra Costa County is absurdly low, at 25.3 on a scale of 100 (the average score for the US is 82.8).

Impacts on Local Public Health

The proximity of Bay Area refineries to residential areas means that for thousands of people, environmental externalities are a fact of daily life–rather than an abstraction that such issues are often reduced to in green activist spaces.  Sandy Saetuern, a South-East Asian refugee and resident of Richmond, describes the experience of going to school within a mile of the Chevron refinery:

“At school, along with earthquake drills, we were practicing chemical explosion drills.  I remember once coming out and the playground was enveloped in smoke. The smell was really awful, a strong, sort of gassy smell, and you couldn’t see a couple of feet in front of you. We were all coughing.”

As one might expect, incidents like this–as well as the more constant and structural release of toxins and pollutants–results in disproportionate health outcomes for locals.  For instance, there is a persistently high rate of asthma for residents of the East Bay:

Exposure to pollution has long been a concern for families across the Bay Area, from the waterfront industries in Oakland and Pittsburg to the oil refineries in Benicia and Martinez to the clogged freeways that traverse the South Bay and Peninsula. In Alameda County, the asthma hospitalization rate — 20.3 stays for every 10,000 children — is nearly twice the state average and the third-highest in California, next to rates in Imperial and Fresno counties. Some Oakland neighborhoods sent children to the hospital two or three times as often as that.

Asthma isn’t the only health effect that locals have to worry about;  the chemicals that are routinely released, and end up in people’s homes (as found by research like the 2009 article in the American Journal of Public Health), are consistently linked to health problems ranging from chronic bronchitis to cancer.  The fact that there aren’t consistent efforts to study and document these effects, especially in the context of future plans to expand existing petrochemical facilities, constitutes structural neglect for the communities who bear the brunt of industrial externalities.

Expansion Plans

It is bad enough that the communities in the northern Bay Area have to deal with the presently existing fossil-fuel infrastructure.  However, the recent boom in the North American oil industry–brought on by technological innovations in oil extraction such as hydraulic fracking–is putting even more pressure on these already marginalized communities as fossil-fuel corporations are now attempting to expand their operations and invest in even more capacity to process new and dirtier forms of oil.  Some of the impending expansion plans are listed below:

  • Chevron Richmond Refinery, Richmond: Chevron has plans to invest $1B into its Richmond refinery, in an effort to upgrade the site to be able to process high-sulfur crude oil.  Chevron officials claim that emissions from the site will not be increased; almost everybody else has serious doubts about this claim.

  • Benicia Refinery, Benicia: Valero is attempting to build up capacity to import oil by rail, which will likely be dominated by tar sand imports.

  • WesPac Energy, Pittsburg: Wespac, an energy infrastructure company, wants to expand its existing oil terminal and storage site to deal with the expected increase in the transportation and refinement capacity of Bay Area oil infrastructure.

And in general, as Contra Costa Times reports, the expansion plans are heavily cruxed on increased development of the aforementioned tar sands being exploited in Canada:

Phillips 66 in Rodeo already brings in trains filled with tar sands crude, and Chevron Richmond refines it. Shell in Martinez receives processed tar sands oil in the form of synthetic crude. Tesoro Golden Eagle in Avon, near Martinez, wants to bring in the heavy crude — which is refined from an unconventional petroleum deposit that has the texture and smell of tar mixed with sand — by rail. And Benicia’s Valero refinery hopes to bring in 70,000 barrels a day of North American crude by rail and spend $30 million to increase its infrastructure to handle it, according to investment reports, environmental studies and company profiles.

Community Resistance and Imminent Struggles

While community activism has garnered some concessions from companies like Chevron in the form of donations to local schools and health centers, the general future outlook for the population of the Bay Area in general appears grim.  As stated before, the rise of unconventional oil production has companies gearing up to expand their infrastructure.  This translates into new pipelines crossing through East Bay communities and ecologies, increased movement of oil and oil products via rail and ship, and increased capacity for refining and storing petroleum products.

The most imminent struggle between communities and carbon is in Pittsburg, a town on the north-eastern side of the Bay.  This town has long hosted oil storage facilities, and “boasts” even higher asthma rates than Richmond; now (as stated above) WesPac Energy is seeking to expand these storage sites even further:

WesPac Energy–Pittsburg LLC (WesPac) will modernize and reactivate the existing marine terminal, oil storage and transfer facilities at the GenOn Pittsburg Generating Station located at 696 West 10th Street.  It will be used to transport and store virgin and partially refined crude oil.  All products will be transferred by pipeline, rail, ship or barge and will be stored in the storage tanks on site.  The crude oil will be shipped to local refineries through existing pipelines. One pipeline is already connected to the facility and the other will require a new pipeline to connect to it, approximately 2,400 feet long.

This increase in carbon infrastructure will put even more pressure on an already burdened community.  From East Bay Express:

“Pittsburg always gets dumped on,” added longtime community activist Jim MacDonald in an interview. He noted that the city already hosts two fossil fuel power plants and a facility to store petroleum coke, a toxic refinery byproduct. In a city with high numbers of low-income residents, many of whom are people of color, MacDonald said his “issue is environmental justice.”

In response to this imminent deepening of carbon infrastructure, residents of Pittsburg have formed the Pittsburg Defense Council (PDC), and have been pouring countless hours into knocking on doors and letting people know about the impending increase in the threat to their public health.  A protest march is set to happen on January 11th, and general strategies are being developed with regards to how to best confront a business-interest-dominated city council which, as of right now, will be more than happy to give WesPac the leeway to build up fossil-fuel infrastructure.  Final decisions for whether the project will be approved will be made early 2014, and so this is a critical time period in which pressure has to be applied to prevent the project from coming through.

At first glance, this may seem like an isolated struggle against the degradation of public health and local ecology by a small local community.  But in reality, the Pittsburg front is a struggle that parallels the struggles that emerging all along the West coast of Anglo-America. From British Columbia to Seattle to the Bay Area to Los Angles, fossil fuel companies are cheerfully planning the roll-out of more carbon infrastructure–never mind the impact on local communities, or the global implications of the continued production and consumption of fossil-fuels.

These interconnections have been recognized by communities, and has translated into the formation of coalitions like The Sunflower Alliance, whose goals is to coordinate and build solidarity between the various anti-carbon community groups in Northern California.  This logic of solidarity and grassroots networking is also espoused by Communities for a Better Environment, an environmental justice-oriented group that works with residents across California who are fighting to protect the public health.

If Pittsburg wins its struggle, then Richmond is in an even better position to prevent the expansion of Chevron’s refinery.  And if both Pittsburg and Richmond triumph, then the proposed import/export terminals for other sites will also be on weaker footing.  And in general, the more success the Bay Area has in preventing the consolidation of the fossil-fuel industry, then the more success that other regions up and down the West Coast will have–and vice versa.  And on the broader field, these strategies to undermine the fossil fuel industry and prevent its further deployment are essential if we are to move toward a sustainable, zero-carbon future, and reverse the ongoing global ecological crisis.

This is why it is crucial that people across the Bay Area–and indeed, California–rally in support of the people of Pittsburg, and against Wespac.  A victory for Pittsburg is a victory for the Bay Area, and a victory for the Bay Area is a victory for California–and so on!

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