|Enough Is Enough
February 5, 2002
ENOUGH IS ENOUGH!
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.
Following are some of the comments I received following the January 31, 2002, Chevron release:
Following is the West
County Times coverage of the January 31, 2002, incident: