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Angry residents crowd meeting over Richmond refinery fire

August 7, 2012 |  9:31 pm

Fire burns at Richmond oil refinery

Several hundred people -- many holding protest signs, some with face masks and one in a full biohazard suit complete with gas mask -- turned out Tuesday evening for an emotional town hall meeting about the Chevron refinery fire in the Bay Area city of Richmond, filling every seat on the floor of the Richmond Memorial Auditorium and crowding the back of the cavernous room.

They booed refinery General Manager Nigel Hearne when he again apologized for Monday's incident. They shouted down Randall Sawyer, Contra Costa County director of hazardous materials. And they spoke out over Katherine Hearn of the county’s Community Awareness and Emergency Response Department, who tried to talk about the region’s warning system.

“It didn’t work in my neighborhood,” one woman yelled out over the soft-spoken Hearn.

PHOTOS: Richmond refinery fire

Dr. Wendel Brunner, county director of public health, was the rare official the crowd applauded during the restive 2 1/2-hour meeting. Brunner said that initial reports of 425 people going to the emergency room during and after the fire had risen to 949 by Tuesday evening.

“Fortunately, of the 949, none had been injured enough that they had to be admitted to the hospital,” Brunner told the crowd. “Just because no one was injured enough that they didn’t have to be admitted to the hospital doesn’t mean this is OK. Just because they will recover ... it doesn’t mean that this exposure is OK or acceptable.”

The meeting's question-and-answer session immediately turned into a verbal brawl, which didn't stop until the meeting ended at 8:30 p.m. and what was left of the crowd surrounded the stage. Police officers stood by as audience members pressed officials for more answers.

A furious and distrustful Rev. Kenneth Davis was the first speaker to take the microphone, and he refused to give it up. “Where can I shelter? How long can I hold my breath?” Davis demanded. “What about our dogs, our cats, our chickens, our children?”

After audience members shouted, “Give up the mike! Give up the mike!” it was Charlie Walker’s turn to talk. The 79-year-old grandfather told the audience that the meeting was “nothing but an act of futility” and urged them, “Don’t get mad.”

“These people don’t know what they’re talking about,” Walker said of the panel of officials. “Not one of them has the authority to say what they’re going to do. The fire never should have gotten that far out of hand. They say they’re sorry? They’re the sorriest people around.”

Said Dr. Henry Clark, executive director of the West County Toxics Coalition, “This warning system has  not worked from Day One. There’s always been the wrong people getting the warning, not enough people getting the warning.”

Hearn said that the first notifications go to the media and that the emergency broadcast system is set off. After that, she said, there are sirens and telephone calls, and other alerts.

“Last night, calls went out to 20,000 people,” Hearn said. “If you don’t have your cellphone signed up, I urge you to sign up for a notification.”

Richmond resident Bruce Atkin, 55, said he had only two questions. They encompassed the tensions facing many in this hard-knock city.

“When we go to the doctor, who’s gonna pay the bill? I don’t got no money,” Atkin told the panel.

Then he addressed the crowd: “You all talk about Chevron getting out of Richmond. Do you want to see a ghost town? … There will be no work, no money, no nothing. Stop being mad and start thinking outside the box.”

Hearne, the refinery general manager, promised that the company would stand behind its 110-year history here. And the bills? “Chevron will take responsibility for all legitimate claims that come in,” he said.

During protests before the meeting, members of a group called Urban Tilth, which runs 11 community gardens here, tossed armloads of their fresh-grown produce into trash cans, ruing that there is no way to know how badly the refinery fire “poisoned it.”

“That toxic plume went over every one of our gardens,” said Doria Robinson, Urban Tilth executive director. “We might have to pull out all of the food we’ve been growing because of what happened yesterday.”

Inside the auditorium, dozens of the group's members and supporters brought the meeting to a brief standstill. They dumped their wilted produce on the stage where the local and Chevron officials sat in folding chairs.

And they chanted, call and response style:

"We demand that you, Chevron!"

"We demand that you, Chevron!"

"Be accountable!"

"Be accountable!"

"Become good neighbors!"

"Become good neighbors!"

"Stop poisoning our homes!"

"Stop poisoning our homes!"

"We are Richmond!"

"We are Richmond!"

RELATED:

Bay Area oil refinery fire prompts air-quality concerns

Massive oil refinery fire sends hundreds to Bay Area hospitals

Chevron refinery fire in Richmond may spur jump in gas prices

-- Maria L. LaGanga in Richmond

Photo: Smoke plumes from Monday's fire at the Chevron oil refinery in Richmond. Credit: Eric Risberg / Associated Press

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