This is The Color of Climate, a weekly column from OneZero exploring how climate change and other environmental issues uniquely impact the future of communities of color.
Last week, Chevron joined the countless number of corporations that have released statements about racial injustice in the wake of nationwide uprisings to protest the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Last Friday, the company tweeted an image with the words “racism has no place in America” along with a link to a page on its website with quotes about racial justice from company executives.
“I share the anger and pain felt by so many Americans at the recent killings of unarmed black men and women,” reads the statement of Chevron CEO Mike Wirth. “Racism and brutality have no place in America. Yet these incidents still occur. And they impact people well beyond those directly affected by such tragedies. Including people at our company. I absolutely believe we are stronger when we embrace our differences, and now is an important time to do just that.”
People living near the Chevron oil refinery in Richmond, California, say the company’s statements don’t jive with the way the company pollutes communities of color.
Doria Robinson, a Black third-generation Richmond resident and environmental activist, tells OneZero the pollution burden that Chevron places on the Black and Latinx community in Richmond is “intense.” She says that even though Chevron says it supports racial justice “in some general, vague way,” the company has its own history of environmental racism to reckon with.
“It’s ridiculous,” she says. “It’s like, do I really need to engage in this conversation with you fools who have spent years poisoning Black and Brown people?”
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The company’s sprawling 2,900-acre campus on the western edge of Richmond emits thousands of tons of air pollution into nearby Black and Latinx neighborhoods. Black people started moving to Richmond in large numbers during World War II and were redlined into the neighborhoods near the refinery. More recently, many of those neighborhoods have become majority Latinx as Black residents have left for the suburbs.
Long-term exposure to the types of pollutants that come from the refinery — particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, and carbon monoxide — are linked to health problems including increased risk of asthma, heart attack, and low birth weight. California’s Environmental Protection Agency data shows the severity of these problems in several neighborhoods of color near the refinery.
The refinery has created acute environmental threats, too. Infamously, a massive fire at the facility in 2012 caused about 15,000 area residents to seek medical treatment, mostly for breathing problems. Fires and explosions at the refinery in 1989 and 1999 also injured workers and residents.
People who responded to Chevron’s tweet criticized the company’s environmental record in communities of color not only in Richmond but also in Ecuador and Nigeria. Indigenous communities in Ecuador’s Amazon rainforest argue that Chevron is on the hook to pay $95 billion in damages due to an oil spill caused by Texaco, which Chevron bought in 2000. Activists in Nigeria have been demanding compensation from Chevron since at least the late 1990s, after the company caused severe environmental damage in the Niger Delta. Chevron did not respond to those replies on Twitter.
“Recent statements by Chevron leaders are consistent with our values and how we have operated over time,” Sean Comey, a senior adviser for Chevron external affairs, said in an email to OneZero. “Many statements made by activists about the company are inaccurate and misleading.”
When asked about Chevron’s role in Ecuador, Comey pointed to a 2018 ruling by an international tribunal at The Hague. The tribunal overturned the Ecuador Supreme Court’s 2011 ruling that the company owed $95 billion to the country’s indigenous residents. In Richmond, said Comey, Chevron is “continually working to reduce [its] environmental footprint,” pointing out that the company has reduced its emissions 86% in Richmond over the last 40 years. He didn’t comment on Chevron’s dealings in Nigeria.
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Environmental activists in Richmond acknowledge Chevron has cleaned up its act, but only because people in the community have pushed the company to do so.
“None of that would have occurred without vigorous community advocacy forcing them to have to change their behavior,” Andrés Soto, an organizer with the Bay Area-based environmental organization Communities for a Better Environment, tells OneZero. “None of it was done voluntarily.”
Soto grew up in Richmond and has seen the pollution created by the refinery for decades. He has also observed how hard it’s been to get the company to clean up its act. In 2016, Chevron launched an online publication called the Richmond Standard that Soto says was used to sway public opinion and was a “propaganda tool.” He said its statements on racial justice were “just more bullshit.”
“This comment is ludicrous on its face simply because of the Richmond experience,” he says. “They’ve been putting pollution in Richmond for over 100 years.”
So, what would it look like for Chevron’s walk to match its recent talk on racial justice? The big first step, say Robinson and Soto, would be for Chevron to immediately shut down its Richmond refinery.
“That would be the bold move, right? The age of fuel and gasoline is over,” Robinson says. “[They’ve] made an incredible impact on this planet, on the landscape, on the people who live here and need to make a plan to transition.”