Richmond, California Case Study

    Richmond, California, a suburb of San Francisco, endures many environmental burdens. As home of over 350 petrochemical facilities that handle hazardous waste, Richmond is over half African-American and ten percent Latino. Robert D. Bullard, Anatomy of Environmental Racism and the Environmental Justice Movement, in Confronting Environmental Racism: Voices from the Grassroots 29 (Robert D. Bullard ed., 1993). Moreover, of the fourteen neighborhoods closest to brunt of the industrial pollution, the population is between 72 and 94 percent African-American.  Peter L. Reich, Greening the Ghetto: A Theory of Environmental Race Discrimination, 41 U. Kan. L. Rev. 271, 276 (1992). Although Richmond hosts a number of citizens' groups, such as the West County Toxics Coalition (WCTC), scholars believed that general situation in Richmond would not improve. Id. Still, despite the high rates of pollution in the "majority-minority" city, at least one scholar argued that Richmond's minority neighborhoods were not intentionally targeted for LULU sites. Lynn E. Blais, Environmental Racism Reconsidered, 75 N.C. L. Rev. 75, 115 (1996). Rather, "industry grew in Richmond and lured its residents with the promise of jobs." Id. Regardless of the causation issue, Richmond is classic example of a minority community overburdened by high levels of toxic pollution.

    In 1993, a refinery owned by the General Chemical Company allowed a significant amount of oleum to escape from the plant, "causing coughing, shortness of breath, runny eyes, nausea and other symptoms among nearby residents.' Marie A. Kirk & Christine L. Wade, A Taxing Problem for Environmental Justice: The Tax Money from Hazardous Waste Facilities, Where it Goes, and What it Means, 16 Stan. Envtl. L.J. 201, 244-45 (1997). Roughly 24,000 people were forced to go to the emergency room. Id. at 245. Thus, in addition to the already widespread "everyday" pollution with which Richmond residents dealt,1 the city's residents now had to contend with a significant ecological disaster as well.

    Since the disaster, however, businesses, residents, and environmentalists together have achieved some progress. Three years after the accident, environmentalists and General Chemical agreed to the terms regarding safety standards at a new sulfuric acid factory. Jane Kay, Richmond Plant Safety Pact OK'd, San Francisco Examiner, Feb. 7, 1996, at A-5. General Chemical agreed to pay $130,000 for an independent health and safety review of their new plant and for local environmental programs in return for a promise from citizens, groups not to sue the company or the city for not providing an environmental assessment of the plant. Id. Moreover, despite predictions that the citizens were powerless, the WCTC and other citizens' and environmentalist groups helped adjust the process by which General Chemical transported and stored their products. Marie A. Kirk & Christine L. Wade, A Taxing Problem for Environmental Justice: The Tax Money from Hazardous Waste Facilities, Where it Goes, and What it Means, 16 Stan. Envtl. L.J. 201, 244-45 (1997). Although Richmond still hosts hundreds of potentially devastating industrial facilities, the General Chemical negotiations were a victory for environmentalists nevertheless.

    While the Richmond story has somewhat of a happy ending, it is important to note that the accord between the chemical company and the environmentalists came only after an environmental disaster. It is unfortunate that 24,000 people went to the hospital before the two sides could reach an agreement. The Richmond study demonstrates that laws and agreements are often reactive, rather than proactive.  Instead of trying to ensure that the oleum leak never happened, General Chemical, California, and the federal government waited until after the crisis before ratcheting up their health and safety regulations and standards. Despite the "victory" of the agreement, the overall environmental situation in Richmond still needs much improvement.

    There is no one source that best addresses the Richmond situation. The Kay article provides the most information about the final settlement between the environmentalists and General Chemical. The Kirk and Bullard works give the reader a good background on the area and its many battles with pollution and environmental injustice.


1 Three years before the General Chemical incident, Jesse Jackson made Richmond one of the stops on his "environmental justice" tour. Jackson Kicks Off "Environmental justice" Tour, U.P.I., Mar. 28,1990. Richmond's reputation as an environmental problem clearly precluded the accident.