More than 200 protesters were arrested outside of a Chevron refinery in Richmond, California on Saturday, one year after a pipeline leak sparked a major fire at the facility. Numbering into the thousands, the peaceful protesters, including anti-Keystone XL activist Bill McKibben and Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin, decried Chevron’s dangerous practices and warned of the risk presented by increasing transport and processing of fossil fuels.
“Our community is at risk every day for another fire and explosion,” Mayor McLaughlin told the protesters.
Last August’s fire stemmed from a leak in a corroded pipe in the refinery’s crude oil unit. The leak created a large cloud of hydrocarbon vapor that ignited in a fireball later that day. The fire burned uncontrolled for several hours and sent a large toxic plume into the air over the community. At least 15,000 people went to hospitals to be treated for respiratory complications and other illnesses in the hours and days after the fire.
The protests came two days after the city of Richmond took legal action against Chevron. After months of failed negotiations with the company, the City Council authorized a formal lawsuit last week.
Citing negligence for its failure to conduct adequate inspections and replace corroded pipes, the lawsuit seeks compensation for the economic damages incurred by the city and its residents. According to NBC, “The 39-page complaint accuses the oil company of ‘willful and conscious disregard of public safety.’ It alleges the explosion and blaze at the California Bay Area refinery on Aug. 6, 2012, resulted from ‘years of neglect, lax oversight and corporate indifference to necessary safety inspection and repairs.'”
In addition to inadequate safety and oversight, the city’s lawsuit faults Chevron for failing to shut down the crude oil unit as soon as the leak was noticed and instead trying to repair the pipe while the unit continued to operate.
The lawsuit also cites 14 additional instances since 1989 in which Chevron has released toxins into the air and claims that maintaining the “old, dangerous and shoddy refinery” in a densely populated area is an extremely hazardous activity.
Chevron fired back on Friday, with spokesperson Melissa Ritchie claiming “The baseless allegations against Chevron USA are plainly intended to divert attention away from a dysfunctional city council.”
McLaughlin emphasizes that the lawsuit is driven by the need to hold Chevron accountable for its practices and the continued risk they present to the surrounding community. According to KTVU, “When asked why the city didn’t sue Chevron sooner, McLaughlin said past members of the City Council have been unwilling to challenge the oil giant after receiving generous campaign contributions from the company.”
On Monday Chevron pleaded no contest to six criminal charges arising from last year’s fire and agreed to pay a $2 million fine and accept additional oversight of its operations. As the San Francisco Chronicle reports, the company still faces additional fines and lawsuits, including potential federal charges.