The Toxic Environment

Chevron Refinery in Richmond. © 2007 Scott Braley

Climate Change: Catalyst or Catastrophe? | Vol. 16, No. 2 | Fall 2009 | Credits

Chevron in Richmond

By Ellen Choy and Ana Orozco

As oil reserves dwindle across the planet, the oil industry is seeking to exploit energy-intensive, dirtier, ‘bottom-of-the-barrel’ crude oil, such as can be found in the Alberta Tar Sands of Canada and the Orinoco Belt in Venezuela. Rather than shifting to renewable energy and conservation, the industry is pushing to “retrofit” 33 existing refineries, construct five new ones, and build thousands of miles of new pipeline in the United States. The Chevron refinery in Richmond, California is one of the battlegrounds in this global struggle.

The 3,000-acre refinery, visible from the hills of San Francisco, has polluted the city of Richmond and the Bay Area for decades, despite being located in one of the centers of environmental activism.[1] Since 2006, Chevron has been in “high priority violation” of Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) air compliance standards,[2] and in 2007, the EPA reported over 900,000 pounds of toxic waste from the refinery.[3] And yet, Chevron has proposed a project to expand the Richmond refinery to process heavier, dirtier crude oil.

“Refineries are located in communities of color and low-income communities that have already been disproportionately impacted by a host of [toxic] industries,” says Denny Larson, a long-time refinery reform community organizer at Global Community Monitor. “These expansions could be the final nail in the coffin.”

Although the future of oil is in jeopardy, the industry seems determined to tap a heavy oil and tar sands resource that could last hundreds of years.[4,5] This would create another wave of environmental injustice; this time culminating in catastrophic climate change. To reverse this trend, “we need a paradigm shift that empowers sophisticated, multi-pronged strategies of litigation, direct action, and advocacy,” asserts Clayton Thomas-Muller of the Indigenous Environmental Network’s Tar Sands Campaign.

But first, there has to be a commitment at both the local and national levels, “To a sustained dialogue, and recognition that these communities need jobs—they need green jobs,” says Larson. Richmond provides a good case study of just how such an approach can unite communities in the effort to reduce local and global impacts of the fossil fuel economy.

The Richmond Campaign
Richmond is home to over 100,000 people, approximately 82 percent of whom are listed as minorities by the United States Census. Seventeen thousand people live within just three miles of the [Chevron] refinery—some of them in the two housing projects located there. The majority are low-income people of color.

Last summer, Communities for a Better Environment (CBE) conducted a health survey of 440 adults and 282 children from Richmond and found that 46 percent of the adults and 17 percent of the children surveyed suffer from asthma.[6] The longer a person lived in Richmond, the greater the likelihood that they would suffer from asthma.[7] Local community organizations, as well as individuals, have come to recognize the link between the community’s health problems and the high level of pollution in the area. In March, 2008 a coalition of groups shut down the front entrance to Chevron’s Richmond refinery; 24 were arrested. Also, since 2007, protests have been held at every annual shareholder meeting at Chevron’s headquarters in San Ramon against injustices committed in communities around the world.

In September 2008, CBE, West County Toxics Coalition, and the Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN) brought a lawsuit against Chevron and the City of Richmond to stop the refinery’s expansion project, which was in violation of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). Chevron’s Environmental Impact Report (EIR) to the city was not comprehensive enough to disclose that the expansion would enable the refining of heavier and more contaminated oil. Yet, the City of Richmond granted permits for this project, despite the consequences and the community’s “right to know.”

According to CBE’s head scientist Greg Karras, “Mercury, selenium, arsenic, corrosive acids, nickel, nitrogen, sulfur, vanadium and/or other pollutants can be drastically higher [with the refinement of heavier, dirtier oil].” Karras also points out that to refine heavier, dirtier crude, the refinery will have to burn more fossil fuels to generate the extra energy needed for the process. This is in direct contradiction to Chevron’s claims that the intention of the project is to modernize and renew the refinery in order to lower emissions.

The case was brought before Judge Zuniga of the Superior Court of Contra Costa County, who ruled in favor of the environmental justice organizations and Richmond residents. Then, in November 2008, the voters of Richmond passed ballot Measure T, “A fair share for Richmond,” which would increase the business license fee for large manufacturers based on the value of their raw materials. Measure T would generate at least $16 million per year (or more, based on profits) for the City of Richmond, from Chevron. Richmond resident Rev. Kenneth Davis says that “this money could be used to generate Green Jobs and more in the community. Chevron brags that they give $61 million dollars to the community of Richmond through grants to different Richmond non-profits. Measure T, over the years would generate much more money for Richmond, and this would be money for the city to determine how to use, free of Chevron’s restrictions and guidelines.”

Chevron is appealing the Superior Court’s decision and has tied up the new fee in other litigation. The company is also trying to drive a wedge between environmental justice and community groups and some very important labor groups by claiming that many jobs were lost because of the halt on the expansion project. Of course, if Chevron had the will, it could start working on actually upgrading and improving the refinery in order to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, thus creating new green jobs for Richmond residents. Or at the least, it could sign an agreement not to bring in heavier, dirtier oil for refinement.

Dr, Henry Clark, executive director of the West County Toxics Coalition, says “Greenhouse Gangsters like Chevron need to stop polluting our communities, and respect the human rights of residents that are being bombarded by toxic chemicals, greenhouse gas, flaring, fires, and explosions.”

Clark says that his organization will take a delegation to the climate talks in Copenhagen, Denmark “to ensure that Chevron and associates voices are not the only voices heard. We will help put a face on who’s on the frontline of the climate change effects.”

Real Power vs. Grassroots Power
The campaign against the refinery expansion in Richmond is a notable grassroots victory, which has used organizing, direct action, a ballot referendum, public research, and legal action to protect the community and reign in the company. But Richmond is also a dire reminder of the unjust power dynamics of many fenceline communities.
The Obama administration has not proved supportive of efforts to fight oil dominance. Last August, the State Department approved the construction of major pipelines from the Alberta Tar Sands to refineries in the United States. Obama has also gained notoriety amongst the environmental justice community for actively endorsing market-based solutions and a stringent advocacy of clean coal technology.

“We have to understand the complex political and economic overlays between U.S. energy security and the reliance that America has on Canada’s resource extraction-based economy,” cautions Thomas-Muller. “They are inextricably linked. Even under Obama’s platform of sustainability, of promoting the notion of green jobs, we know that a lot is probably rhetoric.”

Meanwhile, a global oil switch threatens to lock in worst-case future climate impacts. Processing dirtier oil has already increased greenhouse gas emissions from some refineries by more than 50 percent, and a full-blown switch to heavy oil and tar sands could double or triple the GHG emissions from making each gallon of gasoline.[8, 9]

Refinery towns, like other oil-affected communities, are classic battlegrounds for corporate control and environmental justice. The Richmond activists’ legal victory and the ongoing struggle to create a just transition that benefits workers and community by reducing refinery pollution and catastrophic risk is being closely watched by other refinery towns in California, Delaware, Indiana, and Michigan. A huge challenge for organizers opposing fossil fuel dominance in these communities is the fact that just about every political, economic, and social sector has a stake—from labor and housing organizers to environmentalists and public health departments.

“What we’re left with is business as usual in a top-to-bottom approach that isn’t working [and] hasn’t for 20 years,” laments Thomas-Muller. “We’re left with the need for profound social movements from all sectors, including labor, to come together in a justice-based framework to converge people power.”

Community-based networks, such as the Environmental Justice and Climate Change Initiative, of which the Indigenous Environmental Network is an active member, have been organizing low-income communities of color around coal and oil battlegrounds and translating it to community-based policy advocacy through their unique framing of climate change issues. But ultimately, points out Thomas-Muller, “Economics will determine the future of the 33 refineries, and of the tar sands, because money ultimately equals political power. As activists we face the stark reality that we have to stop that flow of money to the pockets of investors. We have to make [oil] an unattractive investment, and [instead] make it attractive to invest in this $30 billion new energy economy.”

Creating Hope through Solidarity
The Mobilization for Climate Justice, a newly-formed national grassroots coalition, recently staged a mass public action against the Chevron refinery in solidarity with Richmond-based organizations, demonstrating how diverse social organizations can link arms within this increasingly strategic framework of climate and energy.

At the rally, Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin, who opposed the refinery expansion and supported the manufacturer fee, had this to say: “In Richmond, we want nothing short of fairness from this major oil company. [Chevron] made 24 billion dollars in profit last year, while Richmond residents struggle to support their families. There has been a widening economic gap throughout our nation. Richmond, with this mega-billion dollar corporation, is a clear-cut example of this injustice.”[10]

Clayton Thomas-Muller argues that social movements to fight the fossil fuel regime should still be at a greater and louder capacity, as these industries include some of the richest and most powerful entities in the world. “We, in the EJ movement, have a profound responsibility to bring fires across the continent and link them together... Change is happening, but we don’t have the organization and the financing to say that there’s a movement. We need to get a lot more sophisticated and cause fundamental shift in where power sits in U.S. and Canadian social movements. We need to escalate things to a whole new level.”


1.    Juhasz, Antonia. The True Cost of Chevron: An Alternative Annual Report. May 2009.
3.    EPA Toxic Release Inventory: 2007 California Report.
4.    U.S. Geological Survey, 2007. USGS Open File Report 2007-1084. “Worldwide Refineries—Capacities as of January 1, 2009.” Oil & Gas Journal, 2009.
5.    Juhasz, Antonia. The True Cost of Chevron, 2009.
7.    Those who have resided in Richmond for 15 years or more had the highest percentage of asthma: Richmond Health Survey Report. Communities for a Better Environment. June 2009.
8.    Refinery GHG emissions from dirty crude. Communities for a Better Environment. April 2009.
9.    Brandt, Adam R. and Farrell, Alexander E. Climatic Change (2007) 84: 241-263.

Ellen Choy is a former staff person at the Environmental justice and Climate Initiative and an organizer with the West Coast Mobilization for Climate Justice. Ana Orozco is a community organizer at Communities for a Better Environment.

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Closing Bayview-Hunters Point Power Plants

Espanola Jackson has lived in San Francisco’s Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood since 1948 and seen both the growth and the decline of what has become San Francisco’s most endangered community. An activist and community organizer for over 60 years, Ms. Jackson proudly witnessed the shutting down in 2006 of the Hunters Point Power Plant, which had been a major source of environmental pollution in the low-income southeast section of San Francisco. Just over a year later, however, Ms. Jackson was at the center of a movement to stop four brand new fossil fuel-burning power plants from being set up in her community.

“We don’t need them in Bayview-Hunters Point”[1] — Espanola Jackson, July 2007
On July 24, 2007 the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) voted 3-1 to enter into negotiations for a $273 million contract to build four new natural gas-fired power plants to replace Mirant Corporation’s Potrero Power Plant, just a stone’s throw north of the Hunters Point Power Plant.

The California Independent System Operator (Cal-ISO), a quasi-regulatory body charged with maintaining reliability of the state’s electrical grid, had opined that the 362-megawatt gas-burning Potrero Plant could not shut down unless San Francisco built 200 megawatts of new gas power plants to replace it.

Potrero Hill and Bayview-Hunters Point had for decades been locked in a sort of power plant symbiosis, with each neighborhood’s plant dumping pollution on both areas. Now, three of the proposed four power plants were to be nestled between the two communities.

An unexpected nuance at the July 24 power plant debate was SFPUC member Adam Werbach’s lone dissenting vote on the basis of his opinion that the city was swapping “one dirty fossil fuel” power plant for another.

“A green wave has lifted our expectations”[2] —Van Jones, October 2007
The Potrero Plant operates in anticipation of that rare instance when not one, but two power lines may go out on an extremely hot day. Pursuant to Cal-ISO’s 2004 Action Plan, policymakers understood that some degree of conventional power plant generation was required to prepare for this contingency.

Ms. Jackson, on the other hand, asserted that one day, “many years ago,” a representative of the Cal-ISO had told her that if San Francisco ever built a new power line into the city, the Potrero Plant could shut down without replacement. When a new power line into San Francisco was indeed proposed, environmental organizations like the Sierra Club and the Green Party, community groups like Greenaction and the A. Philip Randolph Institute, and civil rights advocates Brightline Defense Project soon joined Ms. Jackson in her campaign for “no new power plants.”

As Sierra Club Political Director John Rizzo put it: “…global warming cannot wait, the Bayview and Potrero cannot wait.”
But despite protests from the community and objections from two SFPUC Commissioners, a power plant contract was approved on October 31, 2007.

“Not convinced the city has done its due diligence”[3] —Ross Mirkarimi, May 2008
In early 2008, Jackson and her growing circle of advocates turned their campaign’s focus on finding San Francisco Supervisors who would vote against the contract. Sophie Maxwell,whose district includes Potrero Hill and Bayview-Hunter’s Point, had come to accept that a power plant-free solution would not be forthcoming.

Supervisors Michela Alioto-Pier, Ross Mirkarimi, Chris Daly, and Tom Ammiano—though not typically united on policy issues—found common ground on the subject of power plants and their impact on vulnerable communities and the environment.

In April 2008, Alioto-Pier introduced legislation calling for a study of power plant alternatives after San Francisco Planning and Urban Research published a memorandum which laid out a litany of changes that had occurred since the ISO’s 2004 Action Plan. Most importantly, in 2007 San Francisco had approved a new underwater power line, the Trans Bay Cable, to bring 400 megawatts of electricity from the East Bay city of Pittsburg, starting in early 2010.

On May 5, Mirkarimi spoke at a City Hall rally alongside Ms. Jackson and over 100 environmentalists and activists. Daly, who also recalled the statement from Cal-ISO about a new power line making the Potrero plant redundant, pledged to forever vote “no” on new power plants.

In the course of a grueling 10-hour hearing that followed the rally, Mirkarimi and Alioto-Pier uncovered that Cal-ISO’s 2004 assumptions had not been revisited for nearly four years, that the city had never formally requested that the Trans Bay Cable be factored into the city’s power needs, and that the only person in San Francisco procedurally able to put these questions to the Cal-ISO was Mayor Gavin Newsom.

“I don’t want to live to regret this decision.”[4] —Gavin Newsom, May 2008

Ms. Jackson’s firm recollection that a single power line, such as the proposed Trans Bay Cable, would change the whole power plant debate had now been embraced by a wide range of groups. San Francisco policymakers were asked to justify why one of the city’s primary environmental justice objectives—the shutting down of the Potrero Power Plant—could only be achieved by building new power plants that would burn fossil fuels for at least 2,000 hours per year for the next 30 years.

At a May 22 meeting with environmental and community activists, Mayor Newsom pledged to request an update to the 2004 Cal-ISO Action Plan—one that would evaluate the impact of the Trans Bay Cable project. On June 2, Cal-ISO Chief Executive Officer Yakout Mansour wrote to Newsom that the Trans Bay Cable did indeed reduce the need for in-city electrical generation from 200 megawatts to 150 megawatts.

Cal-ISO indicated that at a minimum, most of the Potrero Plant could start shutting down upon completion of the Trans Bay Cable in the spring of 2010, without new power plants having to replace it. Advocates were free to focus on closing the rest of Potrero and increasing the Trans Bay Cable’s draw from the Rio Vista Wind Farm and other renewable resources in the East Bay. On July 22, the SFPUC led by Commissioners Richard Sklar, David Hochschild, and Dennis Normandy, voted to rescind and tear up the $273 million power plant contract it had approved in 2007.

“If there’s anything Cal-ISO responds to, it’s community pressure.”[5] —Eric Brooks, September 2009
The question remained of how to close the 150-megawatt “gap” and some decision-makers were willing to compromise by building fewer power plants or using different locations. Mayor Newsom, however, categorically stated that he would “…veto any legislation to build new power plants.”

One of the chief lessons of the San Francisco power plant experience is that underlying data assumptions should be constantly revisited. Fossil fuel power plants have historically taken the path of least resistance—situating in and around low-income communities of color least able to resist politically. As San Francisco Green Party’s Eric Brooks and longtime power plant opponent Marie Harrison have noted, community pressure against Cal-ISO and requests from city officials have kept ISO regulators constantly monitoring San Francisco’s power plant needs. By May 2009, Cal-ISO found that San Francisco will actually need just a scant 25 megawatts of generation when the Trans Bay Cable comes online, and in August, City Attorney Dennis Herrera announced an agreement to shut the entire power plant by the end of 2010.

Appropriately enough, at the September 11, 2009 Cal-ISO meeting where the framework for closing the Potrero Plant (beginning spring 2010) was laid out, Director of Regional Transmission Gary DeShazo began his presentation by saying that Espanola Jackson had called him the night before to make sure that he told just the facts when he spoke about the power plant.

1.    Jackson, Espanola. Public Testimony before San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, July 24, 2007.
2.    Arce, Joshua and Jones, Van. “On San Francisco’s Energy Future,” San Francisco Chronicle Op-Ed, October 23, 2007.
3.    Mirkarimi, Ross. “Peaker Plan Moving Forward,” San Francisco Bay Guardian Politics Blog, May 6, 2008.
4.    Newsom, Mayor Gavin, “Decision on Potrero power plant delayed,” San Francisco Examiner, May 13, 2008.
5.    Brooks, Eric, September 14, 2009. Interview

Joshua Arce is the executive director of Brightline Defense Project in San Francisco, California.

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Climate Change Could Bring Toxic Deluge to Bayview

By Carol Harvey

Walking the site of a planned condo development in Bayview’s Candlestick Point, Marie Harrison observes, “There’s more water when the tide rolls in.” Harrison lives in Bayview-Hunter’s Point and works with Greenaction, seeking ways to include low-income people of color in the global warming/climate justice debate. The San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC) predicts that sea levels will rise 16 inches by mid-century and cover coastal lands like Candlestick.[1]

The Bayview’s wetlands and landfills straddle the Hayward and San Andreas faults. If they were slammed by an earthquake and diluted by flooding, their loose-packed, sandy soil could produce intensifying shock waves and then liquefy, undermining San Francisco’s infrastructure, says Dr. Raymond Tompkins, a biochemist at San Francisco State University and toxic-cleanup expert.

Rising waters and earthquakes could also shake loose buried toxic and irradiated materials. The former United States Naval Shipyard—now a Superfund Site—was contaminated by depleted uranium abandoned after atomic bomb “Little Boy” was assembled there. The 46-acre industrial landfill at Parcel E contains radium dials, irradiated animal carcasses and other unknown carcinogenic contaminants, Dr. Tompkins says.

Development poses dangers as well. “There is a very real prospect that redevelopment on radiation-contaminated parcels at D and E will generate airborne and soil releases of contaminants that contain low-level radiological materials,” says Dr. Ahimsa Sumchai, a local environmental health expert . San Francisco intends to accept parts of parcel D as early as 2010, without complete cleanup, and build homes, a park, and a green tech center there, Sumchai says.

Green Center at Toxic Epicenter
In July 2009, Mayor Gavin Newsom proposed a $20 million United Nations Global Compact Center to be constructed in 2012 by master developer Lennar Corporation on Parcel C, adjacent to the Bayview Superfund site. The Center would include “an incubator to foster green tech start-ups, a conference center... office space for academics and scientists,” the San Francisco Chronicle reported.[2]

The proposal draws its name from the “Global Compact” concept launched in 2000 by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. The Compact sets standards of corporate conduct that include respect for human rights and use of green technologies.

Little information on the toxic dangers reaches the neighborhood through the corporate media, so Harrison holds informal “table meetings” to educate residents. People are asking the right questions, she says, despite their focus on the struggle to survive.

To those looking for green jobs at the U.N. Global Compact building, she says, “How long have they been promising our community jobs? (Do) you think every black person is so stuck on stupid they’re going to believe that garbage—they are going to literally get 35 percent of these jobs?”

“You can’t throw in a building about green research and sidestep the substantive issues affecting the neighborhood,” says Jaron Browne, Bayview organizer for POWER (People Organized to Win Employment Rights). “The rush to transfer the land before it’s clean, or cap it and build on top of it, is driven by developer rather than community interests,” he says.

1.    San Francisco Bay Scenarios for Sea Level Rise Index Map. San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission.
2.    Knight, Heather. “S.F., U.N. Partner on Global Warming Center,” San Francisco Chronicle, July 30, 2009.

Carol Harvey is a San Francisco-based freelance journalist and videographer covering human rights, civil rights and poverty issues.

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Youth Group Shuts Down Toxic Waste Facility

Charisse Domingo, 35-year-old associate director of Youth United for Community Action (YUCA) in East Palo Alto, California has worked with the organization since she was 21. The youth-based non-profit operates out of a one-story house on a residential street in this tiny (2.6 sq. mile) Silicon Valley city of about 30,000 people, 94 percent of whom are people of color. This community of mostly small single-family homes has recently been (literally) overshadowed by new multi-story condominium buildings and big-box retail giants. The location of Romic Environmental Technologies—a hazardous materials recycling firm—in East Palo Alto was in stark contrast to the Facebook and Hewlett Packard campuses of neighboring upscale Palo Alto. It was a sobering reminder of the city’s 19 percent poverty rate. But residents of East Palo Alto organized to shut down the plant and to fight gentrification. In 2007, the Department of Toxic Substances Control ordered Romic to cease handling hazardous wastes.

How did YUCA get involved with the battle against Romic?
YUCA started out in 1994 as an internship program for youth. Young people of color were put into different environmental justice programs throughout California, including the Bay Area and Los Angeles. At the time, the Ujima Security Council, an environmental justice neighborhood group from East Palo Alto, was fighting Romic and YUCA brought some young people into the campaign. YUCA’s first public involvement occurred after Rodrigo Cruz, a Romic employee, was injured while cleaning a toxic tank because of a hole in his chemical suit.

Cruz was not trained to do that job but was filling in for someone else that day. When he told his supervisor what had happened, they wrapped him up in 72 inches of duct tape, which caused him to pass out and receive permanent brain damage. Romic wouldn’t take responsibility and initially, the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) just wanted to fine Romic $5,000—not a penny of which would have gone to Cruz. YUCA and the community wanted to get some accountability from Romic and fair compensation for Cruz’s injury.

What’s noticeably different about East Palo Alto now that Romic has shut down its site?

For one, East Palo Alto no longer has those towers next to the Bay spewing out chemicals. Romic was located adjacent to a walking trail that completed the “Emerald Necklace” Bay Trail, ruining the view with its obtrusive towers. Now the towers are not there anymore! Previously, East Palo Alto residents used to say, “We don’t have a grocery store, we don’t have a high school, we don’t have basic resources. what we do have is a toxic waste plant and a concrete batch plant.” People can’t say that anymore. That’s the difference.

The work that YUCA and folks in the community did gives people a chance to re-imagine what this area should be about. We can get caught up in technical terms like “land use” and stuff, but the basic conversation goes: “What does our community mean, and what can it look like?” That conversation is a lot more meaningful and has to be owned by the community because ultimately, it was the community that shut Romic down.

How does your work relate to the larger issues of environmental and climate justice?
Our understanding of the work was always grounded in the question: “What is environmental justice and what does environmental racism look like in our community?” We looked at what was in our community: A toxic waste plant. Why was it there? Then we began to see the big picture. If there are 53 toxic waste plants in California and 52 of them are located among communities of color… there is a problem. Our work was not about connecting theory to groundwork, but the other way around. If the issue wasn’t direct—in our own back yard—it would not have entered our minds.

Now that the battle with Romic is won, how do you see YUCA’s work?
YUCA is owned by the community. The elders here are a part of the process, too, even though our identity is with the youth. Back in 2000, when we were still fighting Romic, it wasn’t a question of “Should we fight against something because we are only involved with Environmental Justice?” The youth felt that if we were shutting down the toxic waste plant only to have other developments come in and wipe out our community, we were fighting this in vain. So, I think, YUCA is always going to be about East Palo Alto first. However, we know that we are linked to the larger Environmental Justice movement in the Bay Area and to the youth-based Environmental Justice networks in the Central Valley. But we are also working on gentrification, immigration, and education issues.

Tell us about YUCA’s “Toxic Tours.”
We have had many different groups—community, youth, and students in Environmental Justice classes—come on the tours. But the tours are not just an outreach tool. They are also about education, because we always end with the question: “Given all these issues [that] we have been dealing with, why do people choose to stay here in their own community?”

Was it difficult to get local leaders to support the community over the tax revenue-generating Romic?
Until voters passed Measure R, Romic was just paying a regular business tax. But the debate about Romic wasn’t just about generating tax revenue or employment. (Of the 200 employees, only seven were from East Palo Alto.) It had a lot to do with people questioning Romic’s contribution to the health of the community. As we went door-to-door, people started talking about [the incidences of] cancer in the community. And they were making a link between that and the toxic waste plant right there in their backyard. There was the moral question of why this toxic waste plant was even located here.

Of course, Romic called itself a “recycling business” even though it was doing the exact same thing it did in the 1950s. Because it was “recycling” all these toxic chemicals—and included the word in its name—Romic could be categorized as a “green” business creating “green” jobs. But when it came down to it, they were just another negligent toxic waste facility that put not only their workers at risk, but also the community. And the government allowed them to do it even though they had been operating on an expired permit since 1991.

As a result of this negligence, people got hurt. Besides Rodrigo Cruz, there was Froilan Chan-Liongco, who received second- and third-degree burns in an incident that occurred after the permit hearing was held.

For two years after the permit hearing, no decision was made! The community was really fed up with it all and I think the campaign shows that if a community just persists, it can win. It was only after the changes in the City Council that things began to take a different direction. Instead of giving in to the environmental racism, which said that East Palo Alto had to carry the burden for San Mateo County’s industries, the City Council, along with the community, began to ask: Why? 

Vu-Bang Nguyen is a program coordinator at Urban Habitat. He works with the Great Communities Collaborative project in East Palo Alto.

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Incinerators in Delhi Threaten Waste-Pickers

The waste-pickers of Delhi may soon rank among the world’s endangered species if carbon markets continue their rise. Now numbering in the tens if not hundreds of thousands, waste-pickers have plied the garbage of Delhi’s streets for decades. A disturbing spectacle, often including women and children in their ranks, they nonetheless provide a vital service: recycling. In a country like India, paper, plastic, and metals are an increasingly valuable commodity. And for slum-dwellers, this may be their only source of income.

And so they join the cows and dogs in a daily forage through garbage by the side of road, searching for plastic, paper, metals—anything that can be turned into cash.

Bharati Chaturvedi, director and co-founder of Chintan, a small non-governmental organization (NGO) servicing India’s waste-pickers, claims that more than one percent of Delhi’s population is engaged in waste-picking—a significant source of revenue for the poorest—and that they recycle nine percent to 59 percent of all of the waste generated in the city. “These waste-pickers are providing a public service—for free,” Chaturvedi says.

But a waste incinerator now proposed in Timarpur, a suburb of Delhi, may change all that. Like other incinerators, this one will generate cancer-causing dioxins, mercury, and other heavy metals and persistent organic pollutants. What’s new and different about this particular waste incinerator: It will generate carbon credits under the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM).

The CDM was originally established under the Kyoto Protocol, the climate change treaty, to address the need to provide new aid to developing countries to acquire and implement new clean energy technologies and projects. Its intent was also to provide a vehicle for development. However, critics say, the CDM is rapidly devolving into a subsidy for some of the dirtiest industries in the Global South and an excuse for inaction in cutting the significant greenhouse gas emissions by developed countries. Dirty industries and banks are growing rich on the schemes. The World Bank, for example, is becoming a major broker of many of them, charging a 13-percent commission on all of the carbon trades it brokers.

Gopal Krishna, a public health researcher at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, had succeeded in dissuading government officials from accepting other proposals from Australian and Danish incinerator companies in Delhi, based on public health concerns.

“We had managed to stop half a dozen of these dubious projects in the past,” Krishna adds. “But this time around, in the name of carbon credits, fraudulent claims are being made with impunity.”

Left over incinerator ash flies everywhere. “I’ve been all over India,” says Patricia Costner, science adviser to Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) and the International Persistant Organic Pollutants (POPS) Elimination Network. “I know what happens to incinerator ash. Most of it ends up by the side of the road. There are no engineered landfills in India.”

Waste-pickers are being harassed by dump managers and actively denied access to the dry, high-calorie items the incinerator will devour. They’re also denied access to the waste stream.

“Instead, they go through the ash looking for metal, the only substance to survive incineration intact,” says GAIA’s Neil Tangri. “I’ve seen people picking through thigh deep incinerator ash for metals. You’re using the human body as a toxic absorber—you’re basically spoon-feeding it to these people.”

Today, with an incinerator contract looming on the horizon, and with it the potential for millions of dollars in revenue from the global carbon market, the political dynamic has changed. “They are effectively denying a livelihood to the poorest of the poor in setting up this incinerator,” says Chaturvedi. “To take that miserable existence away, it’s criminal. And now we’re seeing skyrocketing food prices in India. Huge local skills in recycling are now being wiped out, skills essential for a sustainable society. What will these people do?”

Based on an article published in Multinational Monitor. Photo: Sudder St. Calcutta, India. 2006 Juicyrai

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