by Chichi Clarke and Bigfoot Vicksburg
Imagine the San Francisco Bay completely surrounded by petroleum refineries and chemical plants. Imagine there are no zoning regulations thus these refineries are interspersed with impoverished residential neighborhoods and commercial corridors. Imagine oil refinery tanks and pipes built along 2 or 3 sides of some houses in these neighborhoods, and chemical plants abutting schools. Now imagine you live in San Francisco; you may have no idea neighboring communities are suffering these conditions, because all you see are shiny sky scrapers, McMansions, and thriving downtown streets (financed by the same industrial oligarchy which poisons your neighbors.) Not many of us live this imaginary scenario here in the Bay Area, precisely because people DO live like this along the Houston Ship Channel and Galveston Bay.
We will have a chance to take action here, in solidarity with everyone affected by pollution from fossil fuel industries and climate change, at events surrounding the Chevron shareholders meeting on May 30th. On Tuesday May 29th from 6-10pm there will be a Teach-in on the True Cost of Chevron at the David Brower Center, 2150 Allston Way, Berkeley. People from many communities impacted by Chevron will be participating.
The next day, people from around the world will descend on San Ramon, CA and confront Chevron at its annual shareholder meeting. For the details, see the event page here.
At the end of February, 2 Oakland Occupiers traveled along the Gulf Coast from Houston to New Orleans, visiting people and communities affected by the oil and gas industries, and meeting with local Occupiers. Our conclusion is that the Gulf Coast is largely a national sacrifice zone, supplying the rest of us cheap oil and gas. Prosperity in America is a thin veneer supported by thousands of square miles of oil and gas refineries and toxic materials processing plants. This sprawling industry dominates previously productive coastal ecosystems and endangers the lives and health of poor communities of mostly black and brown people throughout the region.
Last month we remembered the 2-year anniversary of the BP Macondo Oil Well explosion and spill. While it will be years before the vast environmental and human health impacts of the disaster are known and understood, the conditions created by government by and for the petroleum industry are clear with even a cursory investigation. Government officials and elected reps from the local to the national level along the Gulf Coast are dependent upon oil and gas industry contributions and political backing; they serve at the behest of these corporations. Thousands of residents are dependent upon these industries for their jobs. Not surprisingly, all of the organizers, activists, and Occupiers we spoke with lamented the lack of participation in community and political organizations fighting these industries.
For years throughout the Gulf region, the oil and gas industries have been responsible for the sickness and deaths of uncountable thousands of people. In 2005, an explosion at BP’s Texas City refinery killed 15 people and injured 170. The company was placed on criminal probation by the Justice Department, which required BP to correct the problems that caused the blast. In 2009, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) fined the company $87 million for failing to comply with the conditions of the probation, and levied 709 additional violations, including 439 outside of the criminal case. Just before the Macondo Well explosion, the Texas City refinery flared toxic gases for 40 days without informing city official or Texas “regulators” until it was over. (Flaring for this long is illegal at California refineries.) On March 12th of this year, after paying only $50.6 million in fines, and providing little evidence that the violations were addressed, BP was released from probation. This is just one refinery out of hundreds in the Gulf region; one out of the thousands of toxic sites across the country created by drilling, fracking, mining, refining, burning, and disposing of fossil fuels.
Unfortunately, the Occupy movement has had little staying power along the Gulf Coast, and has been unable to capture the interest of people who don’t see how the mainstream depiction of Occupy Wall Street’s concerns about financial crimes relate to their immediate problems of environmental injustice and poverty. Occupy in this region has largely failed to bring local activists and community members into the core of the movement and invigorate the fight against the petroleum industry. Community based and left political organizations still struggle to mobilize people. 200 people turning out for a demo in Houston, or 100 in Port Arthur, is huge. If the Occupy movement here in the Bay Area targets environmental injustices done by the oil and gas corporations, it will create natural allies with people and communities struggling against these behemoths along the Gulf Coast.
The environmental, social, and economic injustices of the fossil fuel industries must be a major target of Occupy.
Asian Pacific Environmental Network: The True Cost of Chevron on Richmond’s Laotian Community
Occupy Oakland Environmental Justice Committee: email firstname.lastname@example.org