The smoke from the Chevron refinery fire that started late Monday has cleared, but the controversy was still hot at a community meeting last night in Richmond. Around 700 people attended the meeting, where Chevron General Manager Nigel Hearne and local government and health officials faced frustration and anger.
Joan Davis from the Richmond Community Foundation began the meeting with some powerful questions: “Those of you who are feeling afraid, very quietly, stand. Those of you who are feeling angry, please stand, quietly.”
Almost everyone in the hall got to their feet. They sat down again to hear from Nigel Hearne. “I take personal and full responsibility for the incident that occurred last night. I'm really here to respect you, and to hear, listen about your concerns this evening," said Hearne.
Applause and boos were shouted, and a long line of people waiting to speak on a microphone formed down the center aisle. They talked about everything from illness and contamination from the fire, to racism and economic inequality in the community.
“I didn't get a phone call. I did not hear the sirens until 7 o’clock. You need to fix your system,” one community member said.
Another took the floor to say, “Them white people ain't thinking about y'all. Because why? A lot of y'all are black. So what? Let them die. They need to set up a clinic. They need to examine everybody out here. They need to find out the extent of the sickness of people in this community."
Yolanda Jones, a member of the community, expressed her concern about how people have access to information. “I want to make sure that everybody in this room, including the people who could not get here, have access to fill out the form – not just on a computer, so that people who don't have a computer cannot fill it out. So people who don't have a house phone cannot know what to do,” she said.
Charles Hawtherone, who lives about ten miles from the refinery, was so frustrated that he left the meeting early. “Nothing's getting done,” he said, “people are shouting over each other, and they've turned it into their own political forum. To me, this was a big waste of time. They should have had more people to control the chaos."
An investigation into the causes of the fire is underway, headed by the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Chevron officials say they will cover expenses for health problems, property damage, and municipal costs associated with the fire. There will be more information about the claims process for local residents on Monday.
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