Refinery fire stokes anger and argument in Richmond

RICHMOND, California Wed Aug 8, 2012 3:17am EDT

Firefighters douse a flame at the Chevron oil refinery in in Richmond, California August 6, 2012.REUTERS/Josh Edelson

Firefighters douse a flame at the Chevron oil refinery in in Richmond, California August 6, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Josh Edelson

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RICHMOND, California (Reuters) - The fire that broke out at Chevron oil refinery in Richmond, California, has now been extinguished, but the debate over whether the economic benefits of the plant outweigh the safety and environmental risks is unlikely to burn out soon.

Nearly a thousand people went to emergency rooms complaining of dizziness and shortness of breath after the Monday night blaze at California's second-largest refinery sent plumes of black smoke across the San Francisco Bay area.

More than 130,000 local residents were directed to stay in their homes and keep their windows closed. There were no serious injuries from the accident.

On Tuesday, hundreds of Richmond residents attended a community meeting, some to voice their anger at the accident and call for the refinery's closure, others to defend a plant seen as a critical employer and taxpayer in a poor city.

"Without Chevron in Richmond, we'd be just like Vallejo - broke," Richmond resident Antoine Ford told the meeting, referring to a nearby city that filed for bankruptcy in 2008.

Another participant shot back: "People are saying if Chevron leaves we all die. But if Chevron stays we all die too."

Refinery General Manager Nigel Hearne, who also attended the meeting, repeatedly apologized for the accident, and Chevron has offered to pay for any hospital costs or expenses.

But the residents, who were mostly African American and Hispanic, repeatedly shouted him down and some waved "Chevron Out of Richmond" placards.

There's little doubt about the refinery's economic importance in a city plagued by pockets of crime and poverty, and where good jobs are scarce.

Chevron's taxes will account for more than 35 percent of Richmond's $130 million general fund in the current year, City Manager Bill Lindsay said. The refinery employs about 1,600 people in a city where the jobless rate exceeds 15 percent.

But the city and Chevron have battled for years over taxes and other issues, and critics note the latest accident follows serious fires in 1999 and 2007.

The city's mayor, Gayle McLaughlin, hails from the Green Party and is among the fiercest critics of Chevron.

"The community of Richmond has borne the brunt of this major oil refinery," McLaughlin told Reuters. "We have borne the health impacts, borne the impact on our city's image, and what they have given us is not nearly enough to compensate."

INDUSTRIAL HISTORY

In its glory days more than half a century ago, Richmond was an industrial powerhouse, churning out Liberty Ships and Ford vehicles. It was a magnate for job-seekers and environmental protection was not yet part of the national conversation, much less a matter of local law.

But in the decades after World War Two, many of the industries either shut down or left for cheaper locales. Chevron, however, stayed.

"People don't realize how many other businesses are here in Richmond because the refinery is here, from engineering firms to folks who use bi-products of the refinery to make your products," said Judie Morgan, President of the Richmond Chamber of Commerce.

Sharanda Jones, a 21 year-old Richmond resident, said smoke from Monday's fire aggravated her asthma. But she said it was a worthwhile sacrifice for the presence of Chevron, which sponsored her welding classes after high school.

"My aunt works there. Those are really good jobs. They really pay a lot," Jones said.

(Editing by Jonathan Weber and Miral Fahmy)

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