Breath of Death

By Michael Santone, Associate Editor

At the edge of neighborhoods scattered around the San Francisco East Bay Area sit five refineries cradled against the shore of the San Pablo Bay and Carquinez Straits.

Over decades, the assault on air quality and pollution into the bay estuary have oozed toxic emissions from these refineries that have gradually poisoned the environment and its residents.

This fallout, which incessantly coats the air with a veil of pollution, is made up of an assortment of chemical compounds that silently invade and consume the body.

The latest attack in the fight for clean air in the Bay Area is a project proposed by San Francisco-based Conocophillips (Phillips 66) in July of this year.

The projected expansion to its wharf would include a major refinery overhaul to handle increased water traffic as well as continued pipeline distribution to the landlocked Santa Maria refinery in Arroyo Grande, Calif.

“It’s a proposal that would increase delivery and the production volume of crude and gas by Phillips 66 from 140,000 to 170,000 barrels a day,” he said. “This is a 14 to 21 percent increase in crude and gas oils refined in Rodeo.”

As of now, Phillips 66, which sits on the San Pablo Bay between the Chevron refinery in Richmond and the Shell Oil refinery in Martinez, has the lowest operating capacity and thus contributes the least to the deterioration of air quality among the three refineries.

According to a 2016 research study by Western Program Coordinator Kyle Ferrar of Fractracker Alliance, with the new proposal Phillips 66 would surpass the operating capacity of Shell Oil, which presently produces 150,000 barrels a day.

The expansion would place the company in the production arena with the largest refinery among the five, Richmond’s Chevron, which is at 250,000 barrels a day.

It also means a higher chance of chemical accidents.

With only an occasional odor to warn of its presence, escaping this invisible enemy is almost impossible for Richmond residents as they reach to shut windows and doors at the sound of every siren.

These consequences, felt mainly by minority communities living within breathing room of its towering smokestacks have lasting effects to the overall health of local residents.

Chevron, Conocophillips, Shell Oil, Tesoro Golden Eagle (Martinez) and Benicia’s Valero make up the East Bay oil refinery corridor. The companies line their pockets with cash as they upgrade their infrastructures to increase production of a dirtier grade of oil.

Senior scientist Greg Karras said the fight for clean air has centered around the Bay Area and the petrochemical industry’s expansion with disregard to public health and safety.

There is also an expectation of more oil spills like that of the September 2016 Phillips 66 marine terminal leak that discharged pollutants into the San Pablo Bay, sickening residents of Vallejo.

“They (Conocophillips) are looking to refine tar sands oil in greater volumes. This dirtier grade of oil would only increase oil spills and pollution,” Karras said.

Canadian tar sands is a naturally occurring sediment mixture of sand, clay and water before being saturated in a thick adhesive petroleum known as bitumen.

This alternative to coal, standard petroleum and other natural gas has become readily processed from crude at the Chevron refinery and received by the Shell and Phillip 66 refineries through rail and ship imports.

“Because refining the bitumen in tar sand oil increases overall air pollution, the possibility of explosions and flares are more likely to occur,” Karass said.

“Refine more oil, pollute more often. Those days were yesterday. If we expect to have any chance at survival we need to stop building oil complexes.”

Emissions inventory from the 2016 California Air Resources Board shows that Bay Area refineries emit seven times more hazardous air pollutants (HAPs) and three times more criteria air pollution (CAPs) than Southern California refineries.

Within this pollution resides a variety of clean air enemies including benzene, butadiene and naphthalene (HAPs) and CAPs such as sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide and particulate matter .

According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Air Act (CAA), HAPs include some 594 known or suspected pollutants to cause serious health problems.

CAPs collide with sunlight to create ozone which not only causes health problems but wreaks havoc on the environment by creating volatile organic compounds and greenhouse gases which contribute to climate change.

Acute symptoms of exposure to both HAPs and CAPs range from irritation to the eyes, skin and respiratory tract to reduced lung function, coughing and fainting — while those subjected to longer periods of exposure include cancer, blood disorders, skin disorders and asthma.

A breakdown of the total HAPs emissions from East Bay refineries in 2014, provided by Ferrar’s research study, cite Chevron releasing 600,000 pounds, Shell Oil 400,000 pounds and Phillip 66 releasing 100,000 pounds of pollution.

Retired chemistry professor and environmental activist Dr. Raymond Tompkins said the cumulative effects from the constant barrage of pollution due to refinery emissions has saturated communities.

“It’s what you don’t smell that can take you out,” Tompkins said. “But the real question is what will be the impact on your communities when these toxic chemicals are released. We are not rats, we’re human beings.”

The current state of both the bay estuary and air quality is hindered by the decades of failed equipment leaks, flares and combustion.

But even the day-to-day bustle of the East Bay refinery corridor has a tight hold on the possibility of clean air.

“They don’t look at human life and the long term effects of exposure to pollution,” Tompkins said. “When they have been blasting communities with toxic fallout for over a century and then conduct studies, they don’t take into account all the emissions already present.”

Over time, this particle pollution settles into soil and water causing harm to the environment through changes to nutrients and chemical balance, he said.

The San Pablo Bay has been the biggest victim of this cumulative effect as toxic fallout creeps into the waters from storm runoff.

Tompkins said the bay has become so diluted with these chemical mixtures that it’s not even recognized as a saltwater estuary anymore.

“Men can only eat 4 ounces of fish per day (coming from the bay) and women and children are advised not to eat any,” he said.

“I call them glow fish because of the contaminates that have seeped into this food chain, making it unhealthy.”

The spike in health-related illnesses such as asthma and cancer has plagued communities living beyond the periphery of these five refineries.

Entrenched into the daily lives of residents, the struggle for fresh breathable air has become more than just a fight against poverty and low income housing, but a war against big oil racism.

Tompkins, who has dedicated his life to fighting environmental abuse in the Bayview- Hunters Point area of San Francisco, has compiled research connecting pollution and its concentration to minority communities.

“If I’m fighting pollution, I’m fighting racism,” Tompkins said.

“You begin to wonder why the Bay Area is 60 percent above the national average when it comes to asthma. Pollution doesn’t discriminate, people do.”

According to 2010 Census data, African-American, Hispanic and Asian people account for 97 percent of the 103,000 Richmond residents.

In San Pablo, 98 percent of the 29,139 residents are listed as one of those three minority groups.

Richmond organizer at Communities for a Better Environment, Andres Soto, said the work that is being done to stop environmental pollution is not professional, it’s community service.

“This is something that is apart of my family,” he said.

“I’ve experienced my share of family loss and sickness at the hands of Chevron.”

Having grown up in the East Bay, Soto is all too familiar with the siren (signaling the release of unhealthy air) and his gut reaction to sheltering in place.

As a kid he would explore the sights of the pipelines and smokestacks of the Richmond Chevron refinery as they hurled black smoke into the air, emitting pollution that at the time, was uncharted.

Soto said the possibility of proving Chevron responsible for the health problems that have damaged communities and families throughout the East Bay Area is slim to none.

“I’m mad as hell and yes, I am from Richmond, so I’m going to fight to put an end to environmental pollution.”

But the continued fight against the pollution of East Bay refinery corridor has made only minor steps of progress.

As oil refineries look to the future of expansion and increasing their assault on air quality, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District seeks to loosen regulations.

And according to experts like Tompkins, this loosening of restrictions will aid in the overall production and pollutants refineries are allowed to emit.