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Readers Speak Out On Sirens And Related Issues
February 10, 2002
Following are what readers of the E-FORUM are saying about recent issues involving toxic releases, the Community Warning System and the philanthropy of one of our local businesses. As always, the E-FORUM is intended to be provocative, and some people take exception to my positions, which is okay. I even lost a couple of long-term subscribers this last round. I try to remain open-minded, however, and I always welcome opposing points of view.

Thanks for your thorough report, Tom. We never seem to get the phone calls so we know when the crisis is past, or what the situation is when it is alerted. I was home at 2:00 and at 4:00 p.m. on that day when other people I know received calls, but was not called.

My understanding was that the sirens were supposed to signal an all clear which then brings an end to the shelter in place.  I never heard the sirens.  Those of us who do not have cable had no way of knowing.  What's up with this process now?

Tom, thanks for getting some teeth in legislation against the polluters. I’ll help in any way needed to help get some teeth in our ability to regulate and fine the polluters. I think that our city council and manager don’t want to alienate Chevron. It appears that you maybe our only hope. What about a meeting of concerned citizens that includes some local officials and environmental watch dogs? Thanks for continuing to try and get something accomplished.

The cost and disruption actually spreads further than Richmond. I was at a home in San Rafael doing some destructive testing with Saarman construction when the sirens went off. It was 4:30 when Saarman’s crew got the message from its Richmond office not to return to Richmond to unload equipment because of the “shelter in place” in effect. Saarman’s crew had to move all their construction equipment into the crawl space of the home for the night, move it out again the next day, and then return it to the office. The extra time it took to do this, of course, will be billed to the client to whom I had previously given a rough cost estimate. I had not anticipated or budgeted time for the temporary storage of equipment.

I am in complete support of your proposed legislation. Please let me know what I can to do to help move this forward.

Thank you for this and other postings about the spill alert. Yours is the ONLY discussion on the topic that I’ve seen
Please continue down the road you are taking here because you are on the right path. I live in an old house that is like a sieve. Do you realize what I would have to do, and how much money I would have to spend to make my house viable for sheltering in place? I laugh at that notion. My solution is to get out of town as soon as possible. For all other health purposes (albeit not m energy bill) I am told that living in a house without adequate air exchange is not a good thing. So as far as I am concerned, the ONLY reason I would attempt to make it possible to seal up my house is because of Chevron and General Chemical. I am certainly not alone, and also realize that the iron triangle has old houses with occupants even less able to pay for improvements to their homes to protect themselves from industry than I am. Your proposal should take into consideration the expenses of the individuals, as well as getting money for the city coffers. While it is a good start, $6,000.00 a minute is not going to do anything about that. If they expect us to shelter in place, they should make it possible. The same goes for the Washington School - and even more so. How tight is that building? I doubt it is possible to adequately secure it against outside air any more than my house is. Chevron and General chemical should have to make that school safe for students to be there and stay there during one of their leaks, so that parents could stop worrying.

Keep at it, Tom.

If there is only a $6,000 a minute alert fine, that would encourage FURTHER delay. How about $12,000 per minute for every minute they delay an alert after a release? And perhaps a $1,000,000 minimum fine for trying to secret a release? These may not be “saleable” numbers, but the costs to them of delay, secrecy, and coverup need to be even higher than the costs of acting with concern and integrity—or else we will be made to pay even more. You are exactly right about their literal externalization of costs beyond their property boundaries... Perhaps even the metaphor of Chevron / General Chemical “trespassing” onto the properties of others...

Thanks for the update Tom. I support your action plan. I also want to repeat to you a suggestion I have previously made to several investigative committees, including one headed up by State Senator Don Perata not long ago. This time however I put it forward in the spirit of a proposal rather than simply a suggestion. The basic theme is that a refinery can produce emissions whose long and short-term effects on humans are not unlike those which can occur as a result of an accident at a nuclear power plant. The latter possibility has long been dealt with by requiring the imposition of a sealed containment vessel over the critical components. A similar requirement could be imposed on critical refinery components. There is no question that otherwise offending emissions would be contained and therefore subject to accurate measurement and that faulty components would quickly be identified. There is also no question that such a proposal would result in howls of protest by refinery managers over the costs involved, but what are they when compared to the costs to the surrounding communities, as you so aptly point out?

Thanks for the updates, as always. However, it is not enough to provide a better notification system.

It is time to address environmental issues locally through discussions in the community: Rotary, the Business Association, the Neighborhood Council, and other places where we convene. Richmond’s residents should be empowered with real information, not better instructions for how to take cover. Yesterday I wrote the EPA Region 9 Library to ask for names of speakers we in Richmond could invite to give talks to our community and business groups. I strongly encourage the leaders of Richmond to begin informing the populace of the daily environmental hazards living in Richmond entails.

The spills are not the only issue. A simple search of the EPA’s Envirofacts database shows that General Chemical alone had over 400 authorized releases in 2000. Richmond residents should be made aware of how many Richmond companies produce toxic waste as well as how many toxic chemicals are lawfully released in the atmosphere on a daily—make that hourly—basis, and Richmond’s lawmakers should be working with environmental agencies to ensure our these companies are closely policed and are not allowed to expand operations.

I also assume that our lawmakers are working closely with state regulators to reduce the number of unintentional spills—and that the outcomes of these discussions will be shared with city residents on a frequent and routine basis.

The argument is often made that these industries are essential because they bring in revenue. The reality is that chemical companies are allowed to build in poor neighborhoods (as again any simple search of EPA environmental databases will demonstrate) and then become part of the problem. In the back of everyone’s mind is that today’s Richmond is tomorrow’s Times Beach—the town in Missouri completely evacuated due to a chemical spill. All it will take is one “incident” bad enough to cause death or major injury. As it stands, there are rumors afoot that cancer rates are suspiciously high in Richmond—a word of mouth I have yet heard anyone refute.

I don’t know how we can claim we are a city of “pride and purpose” when we see our role as instructing residents how to take shelter during major chemical spills. But then, I don’t understand how we have $250,000 to install redundant railroad crossings while children go to school in temporary shacks.

The reality is that the environmental issues in Richmond have gone ignored because the spills drift largely into the poorer neighborhoods. But we in Richmond, wherever we live, have a social responsibility as well as a personal need to aggressively address this issue. The first step is ensuring we have an informed public that knows not only HOW to take shelter, but WHY we are doing so in the first place.

I think we’re creating an atmosphere of overreaction. The latest release was really a very minor event, but Chevron felt compelled to provide immediate warning because it can, which alarms everyone and makes everyone more anxious than the event, itself, deserves. You’re correct that we need to get more detailed, accurate information faster, but until we can do that we may be causing more harm than good by sounding alarms. I certainly disagree that the blame for this lies with Chevron and General Chemical, and that somehow Richmond suffers for the benefit of the rest of California. Those industries employ a lot of people, pay a lot of taxes and contribute to Richmond in a lot of ways. They were here before the dense populations downwind. As long as human beings operate the plants, there will be accidents. Laying blame is not productive.

Tom, Your message here is about as misleading as any I’ve seen from you. Whatever is true about the People Do ad campaigns, it’s also true that people inside Chevron contribute a great deal of their time (company paid), plus they direct thousands of Chevron dollars, to lots and lots of community causes. I know because I’m one of those people. And I’m well aware I’m not alone or even unique. I personally know many Chevron-based community workers; I’d guess they number in the hundreds just in the East Bay and no doubt the thousands throughout Chevron. I don’t have a list or the full amount spent, but I’m sure it could be compiled if anyone thought to take the time. Most people I work with would rather spend their time actually doing the charitable work, rather than documenting it.

Your own flip remarks show little regard for what these people, including myself, do. Wake up! You’re living in a time decades old! Many corporations—Chevron included—are seeing advantages to community work, and they are devoting more and more resources to that work. Your freelance-writer friend, Shawn Butler, whoever he or she is, sees this all as self-serving and prescribed from the outside, but I know from my own experience inside Chevron that this is not true.

Perhaps the projects Mr/Ms Butler discusses were required; I don’t know and that’s not my point. All I know is, the community work I’m involved in and other projects I know about WOULDN’T HAPPEN IF PEOPLE INSIDE CHEVRON WEREN’T MAKING THEM HAPPEN!! These tasks are not small or incidental to our jobs; quite the contrary. The school projects I support have budgets totaling thousands of dollars, not counting considerable company-paid volunteer time. Aside from that, I’m not going to quote numbers, because I don’t have them.

Think about it, Tom: Nobody is or sitting around dreaming up community projects and assigning them to miscellaneous individuals to undertake just so the corporation will look good. That’s ridiculous! We do this work not because “Chevron” tells us to; we do it because it makes us feel good and Chevron encourages us to take the opportunity. We’re proud of what we do, and we don’t appreciate being disrespected or discounted. You know what? The truth is, at Chevron People Do.

One more thing, next time you quote an article, why don’t you tell us more about the author or at least where it was published. We’d like to believe such dissertations have been subjected to editorial scrutiny.

Tom, I fully agree with the position that Chevron and General Chemical should bear more of the cost of the alerts. However a system of fines for the time between first alert siren and the all-clear siren could create an incentive to put off the notifications that start the sirens and perhaps even to put forward the all-clear sirens before danger is really passed. I would hope your legislation could have some safeguards against increasing abuses of the system.

Mr Butt, Some of the same things, that happen the same way, in Richmond. It would be nice if people would relies than most people in Richmond do not have cable. Therefore, there must be an additional way for Richmond residents to receive correct information about events happening in Richmond. Like, turn to Radio Station YXZ for more Richmond information.

Second, Richmond should be divide into to affected zones and not Richmond communities. For example, the shelter in place only effected “Point Richmond”. Most of the public do not know that “Point Richmond” is a community in Richmond. Plus, Chevron may also know other Richmond communities that may have been affected. So, Chevron should have a way to correctly identify affected areas or zones within Contra Costa County. Chevrons should give out affected zones instead of names of affected communities in Richmond.

What happen to the emergency tones for large building in Richmond or West County? The emergency tones would be activated by the same system that operate the sirens. People inside large buildings can not hear the sirens outside.

Problems, siren are hear in unaffected zones and sirens are not hear in affected zones. So, how are the public lead to believe anything said or not said on television about a spill?

Key word, public trust in the City of Richmond Staff. Will, Richmond city Staff at all times, or just in emergencies give Richmond Residents the best services? Will Richmond Residents trust Richmond city staff? Still enough is enough,

Tom: Well done!  Thank you again for providing more information and commentary than the City has chosen to provide or the WCT is capable of providing.

Is KCRT Richmond’s cable TV station or is it a radio station and, if so, where can I locate it?

Even tho I don’t live close to any of the refineries - last year (I think) one of the plants had a release (I think it was gas) and I could smell it when I got home. I live on the 700 block of 14th street (bet. Pennysylvania/Burbeck) and to the best of my knowledge, there was no phone notification. I purposely have a listed number for that reason. So, even tho a person may not live within a certain defined area, it can carry over to long distances. I am especially concerned about that - not as much for myself, but for my birds (I have a number of “exotic” birds) & they would have a difficult time (possibly deadly).

If KCRT is indeed a cable station, what does one do if they aren’t properly notified via telephone? Every time there’s an “accident” there are far too many people who are not notified. Sometime ago, after I had moved to Richmond, I made inquiries to ensure I would be notified if there was an “accident”. I forgot who/where I called. I believe it was Richmond City government. I was assured that I would be notified, but there apparently is no way of ensuring that your number is on a listing. Is there anything that can be done to find out if one is on the listing to be called? As if that does any good.

As a person who is chemically sensitive (to what I smell & ingest) this is a matter of great concern to me. Thank You

Tom, you are so right. Thank you for leading the charge on this one. I am very very concerned about our air quality and quality of life in this city.

Tom, KCRT is not the answer for those who don't have cable or not even a TV -- plus few cars have TVs.  The info should be on AM or FM radio.

County health officials suggest that the Richmond office of emergency services address the issue of shelter-in-place.

Dear Tom, Orinda, Blackhawk, Marin, etc. seem to continue to exist without life threatening businesses. You are right. Enough is enough. Throw the rascals out.