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Enough Is Enough
February 5, 2002

Thomas K. But
Vice-Mayor, City of Richmond
February 5, 2002

On January 31, 2002, at 1:26 PM, 22 warning sirens in Richmond and San Pablo were activated. Some people who knew the drill sheltered in place. Others, not seeing or smelling anything out of the ordinary, just went on with their lives. A lot of people headed outside to look at the sky and sniff the air. Some rushed to pick up their children at local schools.

Almost everyone, however, wanted to know what was going on. Was it a serious problem? Was it coming their way? Like many, I turned on KCRT to find out. After waiting some 20 minutes and getting no information, I called the city manager’s office and got some general information that there was a release at Chevron, generally affecting the Point Richmond area, and that there was a shelter in place advisory. Those who were waiting for information on KCRT had to cool their heels for 30 minutes (1:56 PM) when the first banner provided the same vague (and erroneous) information I had obtained from the city manager’s office. By that time, other local TV stations were also beginning to interrupt regular programming to broadcast information, generally with more detail than that provided by KCRT.

At 3:48 PM, two hours and 22 minutes later, the sirens sounded for the last time, giving the “all-clear” message. Unfortunately, to most people, a siren is a siren, and there is no discernable difference between the first sounding and the last.

What is wrong with this picture?

First of all, how have we come to a point in our community and in our lives where a single property owner or business can, with impunity, periodically disrupt the lives of thousands? Who else among us enjoys this kind of privilege? Granted, the idea of providing a community warning about potentially life-threatening toxic releases was a good idea and far better than what preceded it. However, the presumption that thousands of people are both expected and compelled to cease their normal activities, scramble to secure their home or business, turn off their heating or air conditioning, and wait patiently for further instructions would not be tolerated most places. If this were a tornado, a hurricane, or God forbid, a terrorist attack, such warnings and preparations would be acceptable and certainly welcomed. But an industry that cannot keep its business within its property lines is another thing altogether.

But it’s for the common good, we say. If it weren’t for those industries that manufacture fuel and chemicals, we wouldn’t be able to drive our cars and surf the Internet on our computers. It’s the cost of living in the modern world. There is one major flaw, however, in that rationalization. Other folks get the benefits, but we absorb the costs. We shelter in place so that people all over California can pay less for Chevron gas than we. We shut down our businesses, schools and streets so that Silicon Valley, not Richmond, can have electronics grade sulfuric acid to build computers, sell software and make Larry Ellison one of the richest men in the world. Unless we own stock in those companies, they have never cut a check for anybody in Richmond to pay us for the disruption and anxiety we have shouldered to enable them reward their executives and their shareholders.

The biggest flaw in the community warning system is the quality of information it provides. It’s certainly a good first step in alerting the public to a hazard. After that, it goes downhill fast. There Is nothing more agonizing than knowing you are in danger but not knowing what that danger is or where it is located. The lack of information available after the sirens sound and the quality of that information has engendered a growing distrust in the system itself. For example, the official information available after the sirens sounded on January 31 described the endangered area as “Point Richmond.” In fact, the wind was blowing whatever matter was released off to the northeast. Point Richmond was never affected or even threatened. For all the releases since the warning system was activated, public information about those releases was both flawed and excruciatingly tardy. The only accurate information I received about the recent incident was from the City’s PIO, Angela Jones, which came via email at 5:57 PM on January 31. I sent this on, via the TOM BUTT E-FORUM, to hundreds of people, for whom it was the only detailed information available. Some of the comments I received are included at the end of this report.

The disturbing thing is that no improvements are being made to the process, and no one is seriously questioning the right of local industries to continue these attacks on our daily lives and our right to the pursuit of happiness unencumbered by the business practices of our corporate neighbors. See the May 26, 2001, TOM BUTT E-FORUM “General Chemical Release After Action Report” for a discussion of most of the problems that still plague the community warning system, but no significant improvements have been made.

So what do we do?

Here are my suggestions:

1. The most accurate possible information on the nature of the hazards that are the subject of alerts needs to be available to the public immediately after the sirens sound. The most logical sources of information would be KCRT, the Internet and a phone number that thousands of people could call at once for a constantly updated recording. Unlike commercial broadcasting stations, KCRT is controlled by the City and can be totally dedicated to alert information for the duration. You don’t have to channel surf, looking for the programming interruption time chosen by each station. The cost of 24-hour staffing of KCRT and of means to provide immediate phone and internet information would be borne by Chevron and General Chemical. Recommended changes in operational notification that came from after-action report and meeting following the May 1, 2001, General Chemical release have not been instituted. We have to make sure that KCRT is a priority participant in the information loop.

2. The cost to people who reside and work in Richmond during these alerts has to be compensated. When 10,000 or more people hear a siren go off and cease whatever they are doing, there is a cost. Businesses are closed; schools stop teaching; employees are distracted; roads are closed and travelers are delayed. There is reliable information that the specter of Chevron and General Chemical releases was a major factor in the relocation of Pixar out of Richmond. Then there are the intangible costs of worry and anxiety. All this so that folks in Modesto can pay less for gas than Richmonders. I propose the City of Richmond levy a fine of $6,000 per minute for the elapsed time between the first alert siren and the all-clear siren. The money collected would be placed in a special fund to be distributed on an annual basis to the people within the areas of alerts for health, education, and economic development projects.

I intend to introduce legislation within the next two weeks to implement these changes.

Public Comments

Following are some of the comments I received following the January 31, 2002, Chevron release:

  • Tom, Thanks for the report. I closed my windows when I heard the siren. We certainly cannot rely on the Health Department telephone recordings. I have 2 telephones. One notice came at 2:58 and 1 at 3:50 p.m. This timing is of no benefit to anyone. All Clear recording came at 4:45.

  • Tom: As you might imagine, when you have sirens blaring all around you and there is absolutely no one you can turn to for information about whether you're going to live or die, minutes seem like hours. It was a full 25 minutes after the sirens sounded less than a block from my home before a message comes scrolling across the bottom of KCRT. Lord knows we wouldn't want to stop rebroadcasting the 10 day old coverage of the Chevrolet/Coca Cola Olympic Torch Review. It wasn't until their broadcast was completed before the safety of the public became a concern for whomever was in charge.
    Even though KCRT is the station to watch to learn of what the problem is and the recommended course of action, I cannot fathom why they felt the need to continue with their sad broadcasting instead of breaking in with an update and warning. Does anyone really think that during a period of crisis that a person would be expected to sit and stare at the truly lame offerings on KCRT. That, by itself, is torture. Even though I suspected that the problem was on the other side of town, I had to wait almost a half hour to learn for sure that the sirens weren't blasting because the problem was on the next block.
    Every time I turn around, I seem to hear either an elected official or a refinery spokesperson tell me that they have things under control. The system has not worked, does not work and there's no reason to suspect that it ever will work as long as the same bureaucrats and scofflaws are responsible for making it happen. My only solace, though, is knowing that no one was truly injured. I'm only sorry for those of you who, live and work right next to the source of the problem and had to suffer through the same interminable wait to learn the level of danger.

  • How can we help Washington School? What happens to the kids when an alert like this happens, how do we know that the alert is over? Don’t you think it would be a good idea to have a direct way of contact to help guide the staff and parents. The school was proactive, the office staff worked hard to accommodate.............But chevron should have and hold some responsibilities in this matter. There are many, many children subjected to chevron problems. How do we make Chevron insure their safety? I heard but did not see, that while the scared parents were double parked, trying to get their children, the police gave them traffic tickets, a minor detail, if true. But schools need help. And Chevron should take some supporting role within our school. A concerned Point Richmond Resident and Child’s Advocate.

  • I turned on channel 25 as the sirens were sounding. Nothing. A broadcast of the Olympic torch being passed through Richmond. 15-20 minutes later, I phoned the City Manager's Hot Line and received the information that there was a spill at Chevron that affected Point Richmond. I told the person that I lived in Point Richmond. She said it takes awhile to get the information to the TV station, and that was the reason nothing appeared on the TV screen. Huh? If it were really serious, I could be dead by that time. The automated telephone warning is a joke. I didn't receive that until well after 3:00. That warning system needs some help.

  • Shelter in place needs to be addressed. The front page of the west cc times shows school children outside with their f aces covered. They should be inside. When the sirens go off, that is not a signal for people to get in their cars and drive to Kaiser.

Press Coverage

Following is the West County Times coverage of the January 31, 2002, incident:

Published Friday, February 1, 2002
ALARMING TOXIC RELEASE Chevron refinery leaks sulfur dioxide
Sirens sound, warning Richmond and San Pablo residents to shelter in place; about 20 people are treated at hospitals

This photo goes on the front page
This goes on the back page
By Peter Felsenfeld

RICHMOND -- Emergency sirens blared throughout the city Thursday afternoon warning residents to shelter in place following a release of sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide, chemicals used in the oil refining process, from the Chevron refinery.

As a poisonous plume hovered over the facility and schoolchildren took cover, Contra Costa County health officials took air samples nearby and detected insignificant toxic levels, said Bruce Benike, a hazardous materials specialist.

About 20 people were treated at area hospitals for complaints attributed to the release, including dizziness and burning eyes and throats.

Refinery officials doubted the release was serious but decided to err on the side of caution and to report the release as the most serious classification, said Jeff Hartwig, the plant's manager of health and environmental safety.

"Any incident is something we need to prevent and avoid," Hartwig said. "As far as any real health concerns to the community, this is a nonevent."
The release is the latest industrial accident at Contra Costa County refineries, including one at the Martinez Ultramar refinery Saturday, and an October release at Equilon's oil refinery in Martinez.

A sulfur removal unit malfunctioned at 12:45 p.m,. prompting Chevron to report a minor release to the county at 1:06 p.m., according to a timeline released by Chevron.

At 1:26 p.m., refinery employees determined the cloud could drift off-site and instructed county officials to activate all of the city's 22 warning sirens, including those in San Pablo. The affected area was soon confined to neighborhoods close to the refinery accompanied by calls from the emergency telephone warning system.

The shelter-in-place warning was lifted at 3:48 p.m., the report states.

As with all level three releases, a root cause analysis must be submitted to the county within 30 days.

The incident impacted a community well-practiced in the routine. Tim Casey was in Point Richmond installing gas lines for PG&E when dispatchers warned him and his crew, who sheltered in their truck, Casey said.

"We work around live gas all the time; we're kind of immune to some stuff."

At Washington Elementary, parents crowded the hallway waiting to sign paperwork to release their children.

Cassandra Chenevert a clerk at Richmond's main post office, used her lunch break to pick up her children and three young relatives.

"You get used to it, but at the same time you have your guard up," said Chenevert, who grew up in Richmond. "It's part of life. It's the area we live in."

Thursday's release came almost two months after Richmond residents endured a level three release from General Chemical, that company's second serious accident last year. Following the November incident, local officials criticized the company for under-reporting the release and delaying community alert systems.

City Manager Isiah Turner, who said he remains concerned about toxic accidents, said Chevron seems to have handled a difficult situation well.

"I'm relieved the industry response was much improved over the last incident," Turner said.

Staff writer Kate Darby Rauch contributed to this report.