Chevron fined, demonstrators protest lack of safety and global warming in Richmond, CA

After Chevron pled no contest to six misdemeanor criminal charges resulting from an explosion at its refinery in Richmond, California, a judge on August 5 ordered the multinational oil company to pay $2 million in fines.

The explosion, which took place in August 2012, imperiled the safety of workers at the refinery, and the thick cloud of toxic black smoke released into the atmosphere by the explosion sent 15,000 residents of Richmond and other nearby communities to the hospital.

Two days before the judge levied the fines, 3,000 people including members of more than 30 unions, worker centers, and other labor organizations marched through the streets of Richmond to the Chevron refinery gates to protest the lack of safety at the refinery and the increased risk of global warming posed by Chevron’s refining of tar sands oil, similar to the kind that will be pumped from Canada to Texas via the Keystone XL Pipeline.

The action was organized by 350.org as part of its Summer Heat Campaign.

After the protestors completed their march, more than 200 were arrested at the refinery gates for acts of civil disobedience.

“We are here today to say we have to change the way we do business on this planet” said ILWU Local 6 President Fred Pecker to a reporter as Pecker was being arrested. “We have to look after people not profits.”

Last year, Chevron reported profits of $26.3 billion, and Forbes ranked the oil giant third on its list of the 500 largest corporations.

In addition to the $2 million fine, the judge ordered the company to inspect more than 16,000 piping components.

Corroded piping at the refinery allowed flammable vapors to escape and then explode.

Chevron engineers had warned that piping in the plant was badly corroded and needed to be replaced.

Replacing the pipes would have temporarily reduced production at the refinery, and management chose not to do so.

The explosion caused by the corroded piping engulfed 19 workers, who were lucky to have escaped serious injury.

Four of the criminal charges against the oil corporation involved violations of California’s labor standards, including failure to maintain equipment in a safe manner and failure to implement an effective prevention program to protect workers from hazards.

The lack of adequate safety maintenance is not unique to the Chevron Richmond refinery said Jeff Clark, Secretary Treasurer of United Steelworkers Local 5, which represents oil workers in Richmond and the rest of Northern California.

“We want to stress that this is an industry wide problem,” said Clark at an April hearing on a preliminary report about the causes of the Richmond explosion by the US Chemical Safety Board. These management system failures are happening all over the country.

Testifying before a US Senate committee hearing in June, Kim Nibarger, health, safety, and environmental specialist for the USW, said that since 2008 the oil industry has reported an average of more than 45 refinery fires a year, and with 22 reported so far this year, the industry is maintaining that pace in 2013.

Refinery safety affects people who live in communities near refineries as well the workers.

That was one reason that Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin, a member of the Green Party, joined the protests at the Chevron refinery.

Before the protestors marched to the refinery, McLaughlin addressed them and announced that the City of Richmond a day earlier had filed a civil suit against Chevron seeking to recover damages caused by the explosion and subsequent air pollution.

According to the pleadings in the civil suit, Chevron has a “corporate culture which places profits and executive pay over public safety;” “ignore[s] the dangers of corrosion;” “delay[s] needed safety repairs;” and “[has] spent $52.8 million to compensate its top three executives.”

“They’ve told us they are building a safer refinery. They’ve told us they aren’t polluting us, and yet these incidents happen time and time again” said McLaughlin to the protestors. “Over the last 20 years, more than a dozen incidents like the prior happened in this city, in this refinery. That’s unacceptable.”

A few days later, McLaughlin told Amy Goodman of Democracy Now that the city decided to sue Chevron because the company’s attitude toward the safety of Richmond’s residents was one of willful neglect.

McLaughlin was joined at the protest by residents of Richmond, environmental and social justice activists, and union members.

A number of unions endorsed and promoted the action including AFSCME locals 57 and 3299, the California Faculty Association, the California Nurses Association, CWA District 9, CWA Local 9412, UPTE CWA Local 9119, CWA Pacific Media Workers Guild 39521, ILWU Northern California District Council, OPIEU Local 3, SEIU Local 1021, UAW Local 2865, UC-AFT Local 1474, and UNITE HERE Local 2850.

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