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Crosscurrents logo 2021

Refinery healing walks connect communities

This summer, many East Bay residents are drawing attention to the dangers of living next door to the oil industry. Borrowing from a Native American tradition of healing walks, they are walking to all five refineries along the northeastern shores of the San Francisco Bay.

Standing on the bridge over the Carquinez Straits connecting the San Pablo and Suisun Bays, two Native American women -- Penny Opal Plant and Alison Ehara-Brown -- sing a song of healing.

Several dozen people are also on the bridge -- listening to the song, and contemplating the natural beauty of the shoreline, pockmarked by rusted storage tanks and belching smokestacks.

About 80 people are making this 12-mile walk between the refinery towns of Benicia and Rodeo.

Since April, marchers have walked to the Tesoro and Shell refineries in Martinez, the Valero refinery in Benicia, and the Phillips 66 refinery in Rodeo. Next, they will complete the circuit by walking to the Chevron refinery in Richmond.

The walks connect neighbors who are pushing back against the companies’ plans to expand oil storage terminals and to transport crude oil by rail.

Penny Opal Plant, the Richmond resident whose vision led to these healing walks, says that most people in the Bay are familiar with the Richmond Chevron refinery but many don’t know about the four other refineries within the same 20-mile stretch.

So she came up with the idea of bringing people together to walk the corridor. She says it’s important for people to see the refineries and how they’re connected by the water.

People living in refinery towns suffer high rates of cancers and respiratory and autoimmune diseases. That's the story of Richmond resident Andres Soto and his family. As a youngster, Soto didn’t know the consequences of living in the shadow of Chevron. "Now I know that they were doing extreme pollution on us," he says.

Nancy Rieser lives in Crockett, the town next to Rodeo, where the walk will end. She’s a co-founder of C.R.U.D.E. -- Crockett Rodeo United to Defend the Environment. Groups here recently sued Phillips 66 and Contra Costa County to halt a project they say will bring highly combustible tar sands crude oil to their towns. Rieser says the company’s Environmental Impact Report was incomplete, especially in spelling out the “significance” of potential health dangers.

Rieser wants the oil industry to be more explicit. "We need you to put a bulls' eye on local neighborhoods, so people can know whether or not they are living in harm’s way," she says. "And if they don’t want to die, they might want to move to another neighborhood." 

For Penny Opal Plant, the healing walks are an alternative way forward -- deepening connections between neighbors living under the cloud of the refineries. "The walks touch the minds and hearts of the people who encounter us," she says, "like the people in their homes who come out to see us, the ones who honk their horns, the ones the walkers talk to about their experience."

This is the second annual refinery corridor healing walk, and two more are planned over the next two years. "Being in denial at this point in history is not an option," says Plant.

As the marchers reach the Rodeo refinery, they pause in reflection. But like the beat of the drum, they will walk on to Richmond -- with the implacable urgency of rethinking our reliance on fossil fuels.