E-Mail Forum
Could The General Chemical Toxic Release Have Been Prevented?
May 2, 2001

According to press accounts there were not one, but two, leaks of sulfur dioxide and sulfur trioxide from General Chemical yesterday, May 1, 2001, and early this morning, May 2, 2001. The Richmond Parkway was closed for hours, and roughly 100 people sought treatment at local hospitals. Although the cause is not entirely clear, it appears to have been related to a power failure caused by a traffic accident and valve malfunctions.

Everybody, of course, remembers the toxic cloud of Oleum released by General Chemical in 1993. Ultimately, General Chemical paid $180 million in claims from 24,000 people who were sickened. The cause of the release was a ruptured rail car being unloaded. 

What few people may remember is that, in 1995, the City of Richmond had a substantial opportunity to study in-depth the operation at General Chemical and institute measures that may have prevented the most recent release. Unfortunately, the City staff, the Planning Commission and the City Council rejected that opportunity.

In 1995, General Chemical sought a conditional use permit to modify the Richmond plant. The Richmond Planning Department recommended a negative declaration for the project, with the Environmental Assessment Panel determining that “ ... the project would not generate significant environmental impacts.”

Communities for a Better Environment believed that the plant posed substantial dangers and asked for a full environmental impact report. On October 5, 1995, the Planning Commission, on a 4-3 vote, upheld the findings of the Environmental Assessment Panel. The Planning Commission decision was appealed to the City Council by Communities for a Better Environment, the West County Toxics Coalition, the Contra Costa Building and Construction Trades Council, and (then) City Council candidate Tom Butt.  On November 6, 1995, the City Council, on a 6-2 vote, with Powers and Marquez dissenting, also rejected the appeal.

“Powers said that the council got a lot of pressure from the business community, as well as threats from the company [General Chemical] that it would not complete the project or do anything to decrease the Oleum hazard at its plant if the permit were held up by an environmental review. Bt Powers said, based on the company’s safety history, a $60,000 environmental impact report didn’t seem like too much to ask. She said she couldn’t bring herself to vote with the majority.”

In his presentation to the City Council, Denny Larson of Communities for a Better Environment said: “Tonight’s vote on election eve will be a defining moment for this toxic troubled city. Will Richmond remain a polluter’s paradise or signal that the community’s right to be protected comes first?”

Greg Feere of the Contra Costa Building and Construction Trades Council wrote to the City: “This is to let you know of our concern about the negative declaration report regarding General Chemical. We feel strongly that this report, while admitting that another toxic cloud could be released by the proposed new process, claims there will be “no impact,’ yet does not fully address all the issues ... Therefore I urge you to require a full environmental impact study on the new processes to manufacture high grade sulfuric acid proposed at general Chemical in Richmond to give us all the opportunity to openly discuss potential hazards and prevention mechanisms. 

Isn’t history interesting?