Richmond Corporation Case Study

Environmental Justice Case Study: West County Toxics Coalition and the Chevron Refinery

Richmond, California

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Since 1989, there have been 35 major industrial accidents in Contra Costa County, California. This makes it one of the most dangerous places to live in the nation. In fact, between 1989 and 1995, there were over 1900 different incidents reported in the county, making it the eleventh worst area in the entire United States with regards to toxic accidents.

One of the worst industrial offenders is Chevron. The oil company operates a refinery and other industrial facilities in Richmond, California. Chevron stores over 11 million pounds of toxic, explosive, and corrosive chemicals at this refinery, often very close to large population centers. When it accidentally releases these chemicals into the environment, Chevron endangers the lives of the local community members.

In fact, Chevron had 304 accidents between 1989 and 1995 -- major fires, spills, leaks, explosions, toxic gas releases, flaring, and air contamination. The people of Richmond are subject to severe injuries and illnesses. As Henry Clark, leader of the West County Toxics Coalition, reported after a toxic release in 1992, "There's stuff here that's deadlier than (in) Bhopal." (Bhopal was the site of the Union Carbide chemical leak in 1984 that killed 2,000 people and injured 20,000 more.) Richmond was an area waiting to explode.

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In 1993, Chevron made plans to increase its chemical storage and the number of hazardous chemicals in the Richmond area. It claimed that it was just trying to comply with the mandates of the Clean Air Act. In the company's opinion, it was all part of the process of developing a cleaner burning gas to stop the air pollution problem in the San Francisco Bay Area. Unfortunately these changes were going to pose increased risks to the local community. This community was mostly poor and mostly African American. It was a clear case of environmental injustice.

The stage was set for a confrontation. The local citizens were going to battle for their lives -- for their health, for their safety, and for the future of their town.

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Key Actors

The West County Toxics Coalition

Up to 1000 members of the Richmond community have come together under the banner of this community organization. Led by Henry Clark, the Executive Director of the West County Toxics Coalition, these citizens have been fighting toxics since 1986. The group is an outgrowth of the National Toxics Campaign.

Communities for a Better Environment (CBE)

An environmental group based in the San Francisco Bay Area, CBE has provided much technical and scientific assistance to local community groups. CBE helped provide scientific information and expertise about the Chevron refineries and other industrial plants to the residents of Richmond.

Golden Gate University Environmental Law and Justice Clinic

Golden Gate University Law School in San Francisco helps provide legal information and expertise to local community groups that cannot afford expensive corporate attorneys. The school has established an Environmental Law and Justice Clinic where students, under the direction of a supervising lawyer and faculty member, can assist in resolving local environmental disputes through legal means. The clinic was instrumental in providing legal information to the citizens of Richmond in their fight against Chevron. Other public interest law organizations also provided pro bono legal services to the Richmond community. These included California Rural Legal Assistance in San Francisco and the Environmental Law Community Clinic in Berkeley.


One of the largest oil companies in the world, Chevron operates refineries and industrial plants in Richmond, California, in close proximity to a poor, African-American community. Chevron is a large multinational corporation, with profits in the billions of dollars. Chevron is also one of the wealthiest companies in the world -- a member of the Fortune 500. The company has spent millions of its dollars on a populist advertising campaign to promote its concern for environmental issues. "Do people care about the environment?" Chevron asks in its ads. Then it answers its own rhetorical question: "People do." (Community groups have responded with protest signs that say "Do people destroy the environment? People do.")

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Richmond, California is located on the San Francisco Bay, just across the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge from wealthy Marin County. However, Richmond itself is anything but wealthy. The community that lives within the zip code 94801 is one of the poorest in the state. According to the 1990 United States census, 44.2 percent of all Richmond children under 18 years of age live in poverty. Not coincidentally, this is the same zip code in which Chevron owns and operates its refinery. The red pin below shows the location both of this community and of the Chevron facilities.

The Richmond community (zip code 94801) is mostly made up of African Americans and other ethnic groups, as the following table indicates:

Ethnic Composition of Richmond, California

Source: 1990 U.S. Census data

The education level of the Richmond community (zip code 94801) is also very low, as the following chart demonstrates.

 (age 25 and above)

Source: 1990 U.S. Census data

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The West County Toxics Coalition used several strategies in its successful fight against Chevron:

1. Try To Work It Out with the Polluter

2. Lobby the public officials

3. Mobilize hundreds of concerned citizens

Strengths and Weaknesses of these Strategies

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    Other communities involved in environmental justice struggles could learn a lot from the successes in Richmond, California. The West County Toxics Coalition has been successful for a number of reasons:

    • its emphasis on forging alliances with scientific and legal experts
    • its mobilization of up to a thousand community members around an issue
    • its organizing efforts to influence the opinion of public officials
    • its attempts to attract media attention to its cause.

    In the future, Richmond residents may find that another good strategy is to take power into their own hands. They may wish to work towards electing a local candidate for City Council, as well as other candidates sympathetic to their cause.They may also choose to increase media attention to their cause. In the progressive circles of the San Francisco Bay Area, they may find many more allies willing to support them, if only people are made aware of the injustices being perpetrated.Finally, they should persist in trying to work in cooperation with Chevron in constructing a common vision for the future of Richmond. It is in the best interests of both Chevron corporation and the residents of Richmond to prevent pollution, reduce toxic emissions, and provide jobs. Citizens of Richmond should continue to sit down at the table with employees of Chevron in order to construct a positive, proactive vision of the future. Rather than fighting each other -- pouring time and resources into costly, energy-draining battles -- they should work together to fight the common problems they share. As Richmond residents have discovered with their victory in the "Clean Fuels" case, Chevron has a lot of power and money that could be used for the good of the community. It's better to have a relationship of goodwill and unity than one of antagonism and division.

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    Address of Key Contact Person

    Name: Henry Clark, Executive Director

    Organization: West County Toxics Coalition

    Address: 1019 MacDonald Avenue, Richmond, CA 94801

    Phone: (510) 232-3427

    Fax: (510) 232-4111

    E-Mail: n/a

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    Clean Air Act -- A federal law, passed by the United States Congress in 1970, that sets national standards for healthy air. Large metropolitan areas (like the San Francisco Bay Area, where Richmond is located) must make their own plans to comply with these environmental regulations.

    Zero net emissions -- A policy where a company does not increase its release of pollutants into the atmosphere. For instance, Chevron could develop a new form of cleaner burning gas, so long as there are no overall increases in pollution during the process. There should be no increased risk to the community. Hopefully, the corporations can even the emissions of hazardous chemicals coming out of the plants!

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    Special thanks to Henry Clark and Lucille Allen of the West County Toxics Coalition for their generous help in providing invaluable primary and secondary source material. Thanks also to Anne Simon of the Environmental Law Community Clinic in Berkeley, California.

    This page was compiled by Scott Sherman at the University of Michigan. For comments, questions, and other feedback, you may reach me at my e-mail address:


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    Publisher Statement

    Copyright © 2014 Jeffrey S. Harrison. This case study first appeared in the Robins Case Network, 2014.

    Please note that downloads of the case study are for private/personal use only.

    Recommended Citation

    Blaylock, Brian, David Earle, Danielle Smith, and Jeffrey S. Harrison. Chesapeake Energy Corporation. Case Study. University of Richmond: Robins School of Business, 2014.

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