Socialism and Liberation
March 1, 2006


Interview with environmental justice leader Henry Clark

[Rachel's introduction: Prior to 1980, the movement to protect the natural environment was mainly concentrated in middle-class communities and focused on issues far removed from the environmental crisis in urban areas. The West County Toxics Coalition in North Richmond, California, has played a vital role in urbanizing the environmental struggle by connecting environmental violations to the inherent racism of toxic dumping in poor areas.]

By Keith Pavlik

For decades, the movement to protect the environment was mainly concentrated in middle-class communities and focused on issues far removed from the environmental crisis in urban areas. The West County Toxics Coalition, which operates in North Richmond, California, has played a vital role in urbanizing the environmental justice struggle. Not only has this organization exposed the crisis within urban areas, it has connected environmental violations to the inherent racism of toxic dumping in poor areas.

In January, Socialism and Liberation's Keith Pavlik interviewed Henry Clark, executive director of West County Toxics Coalition, about the situation in North Richmond and the fight for environmental justice and against racism.

How long have you been involved in the struggle for environmental justice against toxic racism?

I have been involved in the environmental justice movement for about 21 years now. In the early 1980s, I started working in North Richmond, Calif.

What is the particular situation in North Richmond with environmental racism?

We have a devastating situation there. I was born in North Richmond in 1944, and raised there adjacent to the Chevron refinery. I remember clearly the many fires and explosions at the refinery. Then and even now, they would rock our house like an earthquake. That's why I always say that we're on the frontline of the chemical assault.

We have experienced a wide variety of chemical assaults. In 1989, there was a fire and explosion at the refinery that sent black clouds of toxic smoke over our community for a whole week. We were engulfed in toxic smoke. And today there's a high rate of cancer and respiratory problems in the community, which most of us believe is associated with chemical exposure from the Chevron refinery.

What has been your experience in trying to fight this environmental injustice in Richmond, and who are the corporate players that you have been confronting?

It has been quite an uphill battle. Before the West County Toxics Coalition was formed in 1980, there was no organization that addressed the environmental injustices in our community. Yet, everyone knew about the problem, because most of us complained among ourselves about this bad situation. We wondered when the next big fire and explosion would happen and if it would wipe out everyone. But there was no organizing around the issues of environmental injustice or environmental racism, so nothing ever really changed until we began to organize in 1980.

Now there were some good reasons why nothing happened and nobody organized around these issues. It was primarily because Chevron is the largest oil refinery in the western part of the Americas. Chevron, one company alone, contributes about 25 percent or more to the city of Richmond's tax base. That translates into power down at city hall. But they don't really hire many people from North Richmond or the surrounding communities who experience the daily toxic emissions and the periodic fires and explosions. They seem to have a permanent work force of approximately 1,300 employees, and only 5 percent actually live in the city of Richmond.

Was the community successful in winning any regulatory or legal battles against Chevron, and how effective were they in changing the situation in the community?

We have won some battles over the years. In terms of the legal battles, there have been numerous lawsuits filed against Chevron by various attorneys on behalf of residents. A couple of suits have been settled, but it's usually not in the community's best interest. In other words, they don't get any large amounts of compensation. Most of the settlement money goes to the attorneys, and the residents may get $100 to $300 at the most. If they have documented serious health problems, an individual may receive as much as seven or nine hundred dollars. And those are really rare cases.

One of the major victories that we have won from Chevron is the closing down of the hazardous waste incinerator at their Chevron-Ortho Chemical Company division, also located in North Richmond. This division produces pesticide products. They had a hazardous waste incinerator that had been operating since 1967 under a temporary permit.

The community was never involved in any hearings or process. We opposed the use of the incinerator located there. Most people are under a naive assumption that if the company posed a threat to public health and safety then the government would not have allowed it to operate. Such an assumption is rather naive because they don't really understand the political process. Chevron was trying to get a permanent permit to operate the hazardous waste incinerator at their Ortho facility, where the incinerator burnt up to 70,000 tons of hazardous waste annually.

In 1990, the company filed an application with California's Department of Toxic Substance Control to expand the waste burning from 70,000 tons to 120,000 tons. We opposed that expansion. We said that the company should not get a permit to expand the waste burning. The company should submit a plan to actually reduce the waste that was being burnt in the incinerator and phase out the use of the incinerator over a reasonable period of time that we would all agree upon. Those were our demands.

And so we organized in the North Richmond area, Central Richmond area, and all communities surrounding that particular incinerator. We took about 1,200 signed postcards to Berkeley, California, to the Department of California Toxic Substance Control. Community leaders handed those postcards to the department officials. About two weeks later, we received word from the Department of Toxic Substance Control that Chevron was withdrawing its application for the incinerator expansion and that in fact the incinerator was going to be closed down. In June 1991, the incinerator was closed and torn down. The incinerator has been completely dismantled.

That was our first major victory, because it eliminated the 70,000 tons of hazardous waste being spewed annually into our community. We knew that we were going to keep organizing until we won that particular battle. But it was quite amazing the way that it happened. It showed us that if we had lacked organization there, if the West County Toxics Coalition had not organized residents, the company probably would have gotten their permit and expanded the hazardous waste that they were burning.

Recently, we won another major victory through the Bay Area Air Quality Management District based here in San Francisco, which is the regulatory agency that governs air quality in the region. That particular battle was around excesses or unnecessary firing activity at the refinery. Flares were being used that caused fire and smoke to come out of these long pipes. The flares are only supposed to be used when there's an emergency'when there's a breakdown in one of the processing units to prevent a fire and explosion.

But some of the companies like Chevron and some of the others flare on a routine basis indicating that they are running a shabby operation. We had been complaining for the last 20 years to the Bay Area Air Quality Management District that they should stop the company from excessive flaring. Finally, last year, the West County Toxics Coalition along with allies forced the district to adopt a flare control rule. It eliminated up to 15 tons per day of flaring activity at refineries throughout the Bay Area Air Quality Management District region.

Chevron and other companies claimed that the numbers were exaggerated. They said the 15 tons per day was really less than 5 tons per day. They argued that most of the gas that was being released was methane gas. Even by their own admission, that's a problem, because methane gas is a greenhouse gas that adds to global warming and global climate change. Methane gas has the potential to produce greenhouse effects about five times or more than carbon dioxide, which is one of the more well-known greenhouse gases. This was a double victory for us, because it not only reduced carbon dioxide, but it also reduced the large quantity of methane gas, which contributes to global climate change.

In your experience, what is the force that drives the oil companies to take measures that destroy entire communities?

The oil companies are basically concerned about profits'it's their bottom line, profits at the expense of the people. They will go to any extent to make those profits. If it means destroying the environment or poisoning lower income communities of color, they will do that. Their bottom line is making profits.

In terms of environmental racism and environmental injustice, the West County Toxics Coalition and Communities for a Better Environment completed a study in 1989 called "Richmond at Risk," which looked at the 20 largest industrial operations in the city of Richmond. The study collected data on the social and economic characteristics of the communities that surround those 20 companies. In every case, they were located in communities where 70 to 75 percent of the population was African American and 20 to 25 percent of the population lived below the poverty line. Now that's what we call environmental racism.

These companies obviously locate where people are unorganized, where there's high unemployment and they pretty much can get away with anything in their mad drive to make profit. Of course, they really don't care what color you are. For instance, some communities like Martinez, where the Shell refinery is located, are working-class white communities. They also have the daily emissions and the periodic fires and explosions, although by and large the companies are located in and around low-income communities of color. But in the end, the only color that the corporate executives see is green.

What do you see as the solution to the destruction of the environment by the corporations and the racism that accompanies it?

The solution is for the companies to come under the control of a government that's really representative of the people. Presently, the corporations control the political process and the legislature and the lawmakers. They are all in bed together. It's like hand-in-glove. That's not going to protect communities or the environment.

Under the present system, under the capitalist system, the corporations like Chevron, Shell and Texaco control the political process. Decisions are made in their favor. I don't really see any hope for saving the environment or dramatic change under the present social order. You may win a victory here or there, but in terms of really protecting the environment or merely shifting our dependence on fossil fuel that leads us into wars in Iraq or in Afghanistan, wars for oil'that can't happen under the current social order.

Chevron or Chevron-Texaco is knee-deep in the war there in Iraq. In fact, Chevron had been processing stolen Iraqi oil, as we say, at the Richmond refinery even before the war actually started. And we know that because the Chevron officials acknowledge it. We are opposed to any Iraqi oil being processed in Richmond. Any time that we find out about ships that are bringing any stolen Iraqi oil to Richmond, we plan to protest them. We plan to intervene and stop those shipments from reaching the refinery at Richmond.

Do you see common features between the struggles against racism and for environmental justice in North Richmond with other struggles around the country?

Yes I do. First of all, the Environmental Protection Agency and other regulatory agencies that are supposed to regulate and supervise the actions of the oil companies are not protecting the environment, public health or safety. We saw the cover-up by the EPA after the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center, when dust and asbestos floated in the air and the EPA covered up all the effects it would have on public health and safety. We can see the aftereffects of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita down in Louisiana and the entire Gulf Coast. Many of the refineries and chemical companies were flooded out and the chemicals, a soup of chemicals that drenched the area, are everywhere. The EPA is covering up the risk or threat from all the contamination.

The people are not being protected at all. The lives of people of color and all poor people in general are not being respected. And it's the same underlying reason: You're used for cannon fodder in the wars or exposed to risks from living next to chemical companies or unemployed. You don't have health care.

This is all related, because you live in a country and a system that is a racist system. It started out like that from day one. It began with killing the Native Americans to occupy this land here, and slavery up until today. There's still no respect for poor people or people of color. It's not a fair and just system that we live under. This capitalist system derives profits at the expense of people.

Do you believe eliminating the drive for profit would eliminate the basis for the destruction and the injustice that takes place?

The rationale for the disrespect of people in the attempt to generate profits under the capitalist system must be compared to a socialist system, or how the people of Cuba are treated. The system is there to work for the people.

I was fortunate enough to travel to Cuba a couple of times and to see firsthand what's going on there. Despite the blockade and the U.S. government's attempt to overthrow the people's government there, the government is working for the people. The society is working for the people. Everybody's trying to improve the quality of life for everyone and use the resources to benefit everyone.

But that doesn't happen here in the United States. If you're sick, you don't have health care here, it's just too bad. You just suffer and die. That's why a lot of people wait until their illness is either terminal or close to death, because they don't want a big medical bill. Or if people are fortunate enough to have a job in a car factory, for instance, they can't even afford the cars or the products that they are producing.

These inequalities and disrespect for human life exist because the profit motive puts profits before people. Until that changes, until we have a society where people's needs are put first, then we're going to continue to have environmental racism, racism in general. Any risk that society has will be shifted to those outcasts, people of color, low-income and poor people.

We have to continue to fight the good fight until the final victory. That's how I've always approached things throughout my life. If the cause is fair and just, then no matter what the odds are, I'm going to be out fighting the good cause, on the side of the people. Otherwise I couldn't live with my own conscience. America has some good values that they give lip service to'freedom, justice, equality and all of that'but they don't live up to them. We must continue to organize here until we do change this system and make it work for the people.

Reprinted from the Socialism and Liberation Magazine Web Site

Published by The Party for Socialism and Liberation National offices: SF: (415) 821-6171 DC: (202) 543-4900 E-mail: