Cruz heard the shrill sound of the alarm from the refinery next door to
the Bayo Vista public housing project, her stomach clenched.
"We are one
accident away from a disaster," said Ms. Cruz, her nostrils flaring at
the acrid smell emanating from the refinery. "As it is, there is a
constant fear and tension here knowing - as a mother - that this place
is slowly killing my children.
"How could the government put us here knowing there's a giant refinery next door?"
Ms. Cruz, 49,
spent eight years at the Bayo Vista project in Rodeo, a predominantly
white, unincorporated town of fewer than 8,000 residents in Contra
Costa County. The project is mostly minority.
The county is the
industrial heart of Northern California. It is home to almost 1 million
residents and some of the biggest and oldest oil refineries in the
western United States.
There are 22
public housing projects in Contra Costa, or "Gasoline Alley," as it is
known locally. Six of those have especially high potentials for risk
from toxic air pollution, according to an analysis by The Dallas
Morning News of factories that report toxic air emissions to the U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency.
About 1,000 families live in these projects. Most are black or Latino.
A half-dozen of the county's housing projects are predominantly white; none is within a mile of a toxic factory.
officials said there have been no studies examining the cumulative
long-term effects of air emissions on the health of Contra Costa
residents. But in at least one study, scientists have linked air
emissions from the county's refineries and chemical plants to increased
rates of cancer and other diseases.
also must deal with something else: a growing number of refinery
explosions and spills, which have killed employees, sickened hundreds
of families and forced thousands of people to seek medical treatment.
Public housing officials said tenants are rightfully worried.
"It is always a
concern," said Manuel Rosario, deputy director at the Richmond Housing
Authority. "Many people have gone to the hospital."
nonprofit environmental advocacy group documented 55 major industrial
accidents in Contra Costa County between 1989 and 1997, or one every
"It is like
living next to several ticking time bombs," said Denny Larson, an
organizer with Communities for a Better Environment. "Our research
shows that the rate of accidents has increased significantly, as well
as the severity of those accidents. We're lucky no one off site has
been killed yet."
reported that nine fires and spills have occurred in recent years at a
century-old refinery bordering the Bayo Vista housing project, which
was built in the early 1960s.
In 1994, refinery
supervisors allowed 200 tons of the toxic compound Catacarb to spew
from the top of a tower for 16 days, coating homes, cars and yards with
a sticky mist. Catacarb is a severe alkaline solution used to purify
hydrogen; then it removes sulfur from gasoline.
which owned the refinery, notified the Contra Costa County Health
Department but said the leak did not pose a threat to residents or
The owner later
agreed to pay $80 million to some 6,000 residents sickened by the
release and $3 million in civil and criminal penalties.
Unocal sold the
refinery to Tosco Refining Co. in 1997. An explosion last year at
another Tosco refinery near Martinez killed four workers. The company
ultimately accepted responsibility for the fatal fire and agreed to pay
almost $2 million in various penalties. Ultramar Diamond Shamrock
Corp., a San Antonio-based oil company, recently agreed to buy that
refinery from Tosco.
tremendous concern in this county regarding the safety of Tosco's
refineries," said Robert McEwan, executive director of the Contra Costa
Housing Authority, which oversees the Bayo Vista project. Tosco
officials declined interview requests.
More generally, said Mr. McEwan, "The proximity [of public housing] to the refineries does give me concern."
Two of the
county's housing projects - Triangle Court and Las Deltas in Richmond -
are near a sprawling Chevron refinery that has been the scene of nine
major accidents over the last decade.
predominantly black city of 90,000, is the chemical center of Contra
Costa County. Standard Oil built the refinery at the turn of the
century. Beginning in the 1940s, government officials built Triangle
Court and Las Deltas.
The projects are overwhelmingly minority, and the surrounding residential neighborhoods have long been poor and mostly black.
A 1999 explosion
at the Chevron refinery was among the worst. It sent an 18,000-pound
plume of sulfur dioxide smoke over the two projects and the
neighborhoods. Sulfur dioxide is a corrosive chemical that, in
significant amounts, can cause eye and skin damage.
treatment for breathing and eye problems. Authorities told 10,000
residents to remain inside for several hours. The cloud killed trees
and took the fur off squirrels, said Cherron Holmes, who handles
complaints for the tenants' group that helps manage Triangle Court.
"I lost my voice for six weeks," she said. "And I threw up a lot. Everybody did."
A class-action lawsuit on behalf of thousands of Richmond residents was filed last fall against Chevron alleging negligence.
According to the
lawsuit, county health records show that from 1989 through 1997,
Chevron's Richmond refinery was second only to Tosco in the number of
serious oil and chemical accidents.
Chevron spokeswoman Marielle Boortz responded, "We would never do anything to intentionally create an unsafe situation."
She said air
emission standards in Richmond are among the strictest in the world.
"We have this complete regulatory network that looks at that and to
date, there hasn't been anything identified as far as there being any
significant risk posed by this refinery."
In the early
1980s, a team of scientists who studied petroleum and chemical plant
air emissions in the county and cancer rates concluded that there was
"a strong positive association between the degree of residential
exposure and death rates from cardiovascular disease and cancer." The
areas with the highest exposure included Rodeo and Richmond.
In 1987, three
years after the study was published by a federal health research
institute, the Richmond Housing Authority demolished and rebuilt
Triangle Court at the same location at a cost of $5 million.
Mr. Rosario, the Richmond housing official, said no other sites were available.
emissions are just something that you live with," he said. "It's an
industrial area. These are the choices that people make."
Triangle Court and Las Deltas said they have little choice about where
they live. Many parents in these projects said emissions from the
Chevron refinery have sickened their children.
Nakia Saucer and
Ugochi Nwadike each have four children. They said the children have
chronic asthma, skin rashes, recurring nosebleeds, headaches and
coughing attacks - all of which their doctors cannot explain.
"I don't smoke
cigarettes, I don't drink alcohol and I have no history of asthma,"
said Ms. Nwadike, a native of Nigeria who recently earned a nursing
degree at San Francisco State University. "The poison from the refinery
is killing these children."
Residents are fighting back.
After years of
trying, parents and school officials recently secured enough money to
move Rodeo's Hillcrest Elementary School, which is also alongside the
The Cruz family,
meanwhile, was finally able to leave Bayo Vista behind when Graciela
and her husband landed jobs in Reno, Nev. Their 14-year-old son,
Benito, who suffers from asthma, was ecstatic.
His parents were born in Mexico. Benito was born in the United States. He loves America but said he felt betrayed.
"The government promised us freedom and justice but put us next door to a refinery," he said. "That is not freedom or justice."
Copyright 2000, 2001 The Dallas Morning News