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Capital Blight - Oil Town Rebellion

By x344543 - March 22, 2014

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

For years, the communities of Western and Northwestern Contra Coast County and southwestern Solano County, located on the San Pablo and Suisun Bays, northwest of the San Francisco Bay have been dominated by the fossil fuel industry (and to some extent--until 1993--by the US Military Industrial Complex), and the capitalists running that industry have run each of these communities essentially like company towns.

Under these conditions, all official institutions, including elected city, county, and regional governments, most other businesses, and even the unions that supposedly "represent" the workers in these facilities are beholden to the dominant capitalist interests. Dissident residents or workers--if there are any--often find themselves isolated and alone if they can even find the courage to speak out at all. Complaints about working conditions, corrupt union officials, bought politicians, environmental racism, toxic pollution, and capital blight often fall on deaf ears and are usually dismissed as the product of "outside agitators", even "unwashed-out-of-town-jobless-hippies-on-drugs" or some such thing.

In this northwestern Bay Area region, there are four corporate refineries that dominate the towns of Avon and Pacheco (Tesoro), Benicia (Valero), Martinez (Shell), Richmond (Chevron), and Rodeo and Crockett (Conoco-Phillips), and--as one would expect--dissenters have indeed had a difficult, almost impossible time being heard.

Chevron in particular has run Richmond as a virtual company town as long as it has existed (indeed, the refinery predates the town's founding).  For years, the people of the nearby residential neighborhoods have complained of toxic pollution and political double standards that favor the corporation--allegations that are supported by mountains if evidence. Until recently, the local politicians were entirely loyal to the company.

The environmental struggles of these communities--mostly composed of African-Americans, Asian, Latino, and working class White people--have often been ignored by mainstream environmental NGOs. Locally based environmental groups, including the West County Toxics Coalition and Communities for a Better Environment (CBE), have had to do the vast majority of the work of bringing attention to the plight of their residents. On occasion, Greenpeace and Earth First! have given attention to them, but for the most part, it's been locals--most of whom are not typically activist oriented--who've borne the brunt of the struggles.

Many of these refineries are unionized--mostly by the United Steelworkers Union, with a minority of the workers instead belonging to IBEW Local 180. Naturally, the leadership of these unions has oriented themselves towards capitalist interests, who have on numerous occasions tripped over themselves to voluntarily speak on behalf of their capitalist masters.

For example, in 1999, after four refinery workers were killed in a fire, at the Tosco (now Tesoro) facility in nearby Avon, CBE spoke up on behalf of the deceased and called for stricter regulations of refineries (to protect both workers and the environment). Tosco, of course, opposed the proposed regulatory changes, instead calling for more watered down oversight which--CBE argued--left the foxes guarding the hen-house. Rather than support CBE, Jim Payne of the PACE union local that "represented" the workers at the time excoriated the environmentalists, declaring,

"It absolutely infuriates me that those damned tree-huggers would place this regulation in jeopardy,"

Certain residents of the nearby communities of Avon and Clyde were not especially welcoming of CBE either because--naturally--Tesoro used their substantial economic and political leverage to convince these people that CBE were "outside agitators", perhaps even "unwashed-out-of-town-jobless-hippies-on-drugs" (imagine that!).

This incident was very similar to the PCB spill in Georgia Pacific's lumber mill in Fort Bragg, California, that took place a decade earlier, in which the union leadership of IWA Local 3-469 (one Don Nelson) essentially took the company's side, leaving the rank and file workers to seek outside help from Earth First! and the IWW. Those efforts were led by Anna Marie Stenberg and (you guessed it), Judi Bari.

In spite of years of frustration and the corporations' seemingly iron rule, aided in large parts by their attempts to divide and conquer workers and environmentalists, the political winds in these northwestern Bay Area refinery towns appears to be shifting. Dissidents are gaining traction within their communities, no longer finding themselves isolated from their fellow residents. Workers employed by these industries are speaking out and even making alliances with environmentalists, the communities are finding that they can elect politicians willing to chart a course independent of the dominate corporate forces, and regulatory agencies—who usually provide official cover for the capitalists they’re ostensibly charged with regulating—are actually showing signs of actually demanding accountability from the powers that be.

Political Sea Change

This hasn’t happened overnight of course. It has taken at least a generation of rank and file, grassroots agitation to make such an uprising possible, and it hasn’t been a smooth course by any means. Plus, the "objective conditions of currently existing capitalism" are apparently in a period of significant transition that present opportunities for grassroots opposition to the dominant capitalist model to take hold and quite possibly usher in much needed revolutionary, even transformative, change.

This shift is occurring, in part, because:

  • The increasing use of the Internet and social media have made community based organizing easier and have helped rank and file organizers network horizontally without as much heavy reliance on large, outside organizations as was hitherto believed necessary;
  • Political sea change--leading to raised class consciousness, increased environmental awareness, or both--has taken place thanks to various major uprisings, including Redwood Summer, the Zapatista Uprising, the anti WTO protests at the turn of the millennium, Arab Spring, Wisconsin, and the Occupy movement.
  • Global Warming has ceased to be just a theory to most people and is now a confirmed fact (even to the point of being routinely acknowledged by much of the capitalist press).
  • The capitalist class has turned to "extreme energy" sources, such as tar sands, fracked natural gas, and mountain top coal removal for various reasons, including the desire to shift the balance of geopolitical economic and political power away from Afro-Asian nations to Euro-American ones. Since such sources come at a very high cost to the workers of such companies as well as the environment and host communities, resistance to the extraction of these new sources as well as outrage at the damage their extraction has wrought have grown.
  • There is some belief—and it’s not without merit—that the easily accessible, cheaper sources of fossil fuels are running dry and the fossil fuel corporations are seeking to extract less and less conventional sources of oil which are harder to access and result in greater destruction to the environment as well as higher safety hazards due to these sources’ relative “remoteness”.
  • Renewable energy sources, mainly solar, small scale hydro, geothermal, tidal, wave, and wind power--particularly distributed generation of such--have reached a point of market and grid parity. In fact, it’s becoming increasingly obvious to many that renewable energy—combined with efficiency and conservation measures can provide the bulk, if not the entirety of most of the world’s energy needs, using currently existing technology. Furthermore, these energy sources can provide more jobs than any of the extreme energy sources being championed by the fossil fuel wing of the capitalist class, and because of this, the long standing monopoly on energy by fossil fuel and nuclear power may at last be broken.

Such changes have made it possible for new opportunities for social, economic, and political change in all of the Bay Area's refinery communities, and the timing couldn’t be more urgent, because there are nine potential proposals in the Bay Area to retrofit refineries and to expand transport and storage facilities for various forms of fossil fuels, especially the dirtier ones, as the fossil fuel capitalists make—perhaps a final—desperate push for profits and power at the people’s and planet’s expense.

Bomb Trains, Breaking Pipelines, and Exploding Factories

Due to the massive boom in fracking, tar sands oil, and shale oil extraction; the increased use of existing and construction of new gas pipelines; and the substantial increase in transportation of these fuels by rail (and barge), there have been an unprecedented number of oil spills, pipeline breaks, and industrial accidents resulting from this heavier and dirtier crude as well as more volatile natural gas (and there have likewise been more coal ash spills and coal-related accidents due to increased implementation of much more intensive and invasive mining efforts). One need only mention Lac-Mégantic, Canada; Mayflower, Arkansas; Kalamazoo, Michigan; Eden, North Carolina; Fargo, North Dakota; or Elk, West Virginia to understand the seriousness of what’s happening. In fact, these are only some of the larger and more well known accidents that have recently occurred.

In 2013 alone, more oil train derailments took place than had happened in the previous four decades combined. The capitalists do not pay the price for these accidents either, because such costs are factored in to the cost of doing business and “externalized” to the workers, the impacted communities, and the environment.

A good reason for these accidents is the lax regulation of rail carriers by the US and Canadian governments. Further, working conditions in the railroad industry have declined since 1973, as train crews have been systemically downsized from five-person-crews to f our-, two-, and—in the case of Lac-Mégantic--single employee crews!. These declining conditions, as any working person will tell you, are a recipe for disaster, and this is what we have seen. The employers’ will—of course—blame the workers and claim that modern technology is enough to compensate for the downsized crews, but the results suggest otherwise. These changes have only come about due to the erosion of the railroad union’s power, due to declining labor militancy in the US—aided by the class collaborationism of the union officials—particularly problematic in the railroad industry where many of the unions still squabble over craft jurisdiction instead of forming one big union of all railroad workers.

Furthermore, in an effort to cut costs and maximize profits (not to mention downsizing train crews yet another way), the railroads are deploying longer and heavier trains, a move that railroad workers decry as inherently unsafe.

To be fair, however, the railroad companies and craft unions are not entirely to blame, because in spite of the downsizing, union busting, and class collaborationism of the union officialdom, there are other factors at play outside of the direct struggles between labor and management.

For one thing, many of the tank cars transporting the fuel are not even owned by the rail carriers. Third party contractors are supplying the rolling stock which doesn’t even meet the standards which govern the tankers own by the railroad companies.

Furthermore, a good deal of the exploding oil trains are carrying Bakken shale oil (from North Dakota) which has been shown to be exceptionally volatile due to a high methane content. One can quickly surmise that is the fossil fuel corporations turn to more and more “extreme” sources, these sources will be as volatile—if not more so—than the Bakken fields. Railroad workers know these trains are unsafe, so it’s no wonder that those living in communities that line the right-of-ways for the rail carriers are expectedly opposed to them.


Since 1999, the dissident elements within the community of Richmond, at least, have managed to gain strength in spite of continued dominance by Chevron. WCTC and CBE have gained new allies, inducing Asian Pacific Environment Network (APEN), The Green Party, Idle No More, the Richmond Progressive Alliance, Rising Tide North America, and Urban Tilth.

These groups have built a very fragile, but resilient alliance (in spite of much interference from forces aligned with Chevron) and have even managed to elect a Green Party mayor, Gayle McLaughlin who--though far from perfect--has nevertheless declared that the community of Richmond will not let Chevron run it like a virtual company town any longer.

And due to hard work, these groups cultivated relationships with the Steelworkers and built the beginnings of potential bridges across the supposed chasm between the refinery workers and environmentalists—including going as far as forging a group known as the Refinery Action Collaborative. Those overtures would soon be tested.

On August 6, 2012, there was an oil fire at the refinery nearly killing several refinery workers and sending 15,000 residents to nearby hospitals complaining of toxic induced illnesses and ailments. Chevron denied any wrongdoing or connection. However, rank and file union workers covertly feeding information to local environmental and social justice organizations confirmed that the company was guilty of negligence.

No doubt due to the complaints of angry residents, the Chemical Safety Board (CSB), an independent U.S. federal agency charged with investigating industrial chemical accidents, charged with conducting root cause investigations of chemical accidents at fixed industrial facilities, conducted a thorough investigation. Based on their assessment one would logically think that anyone living within site of an oil refinery think twice about opposing environmental groups criticisms as unfounded ever again.

The CSB basically determined that the fire was caused due to corrosion in the refinery's main oil transfer pipes. Rank and file workers had reported frequently to management, but their concerns were dismissed as trivial (no doubt due to the fact that the ideal remedy would have involved the pipes' replacement, an act which would have required a stop in production and an investment in newer, safer equipment--both of which would have eaten into Chevron's profits).

Workers complaints increased as the corrosion grew worse, but their complaints were continually dismissed. Finally, a set of pipes burst thus leading to the fire and explosion, ultimately resulting in the facility shutting down operations for over a year, while the CSB conducted its investigation. In the aftermath, Chevron still chose not to replace the pipes, and instead elected to cover the holes with patches.

According to the CSB's report, the pipes had been experiencing metal fatigue partly due to wear and tear that comes with age.

The CSB's report also identified an additional factor, one which represents cause for additional concern, and that is the utilization of dirtier and heavier crude. This is a growing problem which only threatens to get worse, because much of the oil coming into refineries now includes an increasing proportion of tar sands oil.

It was that connection which brought the coalition fighting the Keystone XL Pipeline into the struggle in Richmond. Though that particular pipeline is but one cog in the growing capitalist extreme energy behemoth, one which is composed of an entire network of pipelines and oil and coal by rail transportation modes, it is a symbol for the rest.

The CSB's report finally concluded that the current system of oversight and regulation leaves the fox in charge of the henhouse. It proposed several recommendations, including replacing the US fine based system of enforcement--one which amounts to virtual slaps on the industry's wrists--with the European model, enforced by inspections and licensing, in which the industry must routinely demonstrate a commitment to safety.

The CSB made these findings public at a hearing in Richmond in July of 2013 in front of a sizable audience composed of the aforementioned residents, activists, Richmond Mayor McLaughlin, and refinery workers. With one exception, that being a spokesman from the Western States Petroleum Association, everyone there supported the CSB's recommendations. If there was any dissent from the rest, it was that the report wasn't damning enough and the recommendations were too mild.

While this was taking place, residents in the nearby city of Benicia, hardly an activist stronghold, had discovered that the Valero refinery had plans to bring in tar sands oil by rail cars (some also suggested that Union Pacific was planning to enable such activity further by increasing the capacity of their rail infrastructure fivefold). This came right upon the heels of the disaster that had recently struck in Lac-Mégantic, and many feared that this could happen in Benicia as well.

Shortly after that, in August, the myriad forces that had attended the CSB hearing in Richmond joined by the Coalition to Oppose Keystone and organized a mass march and nonviolent civil disobedience in Richmond to mark the one-year anniversary of the fire and explosion.

These responses are understandable in light of the news that in 2013 the CO2 concentration in the Earth's atmosphere surpassed 400 ppm, the sheer number of recent pipeline breakages that have occurred (Mayflower, Arkansas and Tioga, North Dakota being only two of many), and the revelation that the number of oil-by-rail derailments in 2013 outnumbered the entire amount that occurred in the preceding four decades.

Given these realities, it should surprise nobody that residents in the city of Pittsburg, California, another town hardly known for activism or environmentalism recently organized a protest against oil trains brining tar sands oil into their community, any more than it should be shocking that they have linked up with the dissidents in Richmond, Benicia, and even Rodeo!

It's evident that there is a growing grassroots movement against fossil fuel dominated capitalism, and that growth is accelerating, a development that undoubtably concerns the defenders of the status quo. However that movement is far from solid or focused.

To begin with, the Steelworkers, at least since the Kaiser Aluminum strike of 1998, have taken at least a token interest in "greening" its image (and that was due--in large part--to the efforts of Northern California Earth First! and IWW members, who reached out to rank and file Kaiser workers who were fighting a common enemy, the Maxxam Corporation--who was not only attempting to bust the Steelworkers union--but clearcutting old growth redwoods in Northwestern California), but the USW is hardly consistent in their commitment to the environment, as demonstrated by the officialdom of one of their locals in South Portland, Maine backing an oil industry proposal to refurbish another pipeline which will no doubt result in the transport of tar sands oil to that town's port.

Closer to home, in spring of 2012, the leadership of the same local that represents the refinery workers in Richmond quashed the efforts of rank and file militants to organize a strike for better working conditions at the Tesoro Golden Eagle refinery (owned by Shell) in Martinez.

Meanwhile, the USW and it's environmental NGO partners in the Blue - Green Alliance (which is a vastly watered down version of the once radical coalition sparked by the efforts of the IWW and Earth First!) actually presented California governor Jerry Brown with a "Right Stuff" award for environmental stewardship in spite of the mountain of evidence that Brown is anything but Green. This award is particularly troubling given Brown's refusal to oppose fracking in California.

Furthermore, the city council and mayor are not necessarily immune to manipulation, corruption, or even betrayal. For example, one of the supposedly "progressive" City Council members, Corky Boozé, a supposed fellow traveller of the Richmond Progressives and Greens before his election revealed that his true colors were the red, blue, and white of Chevron once he took office for reasons that are not entirely clear (though a possible explanation is that Chevron's agents were able to blackmail him due to numerous embarrassing skeletons in his proverbial closet, including numerous allegations of sexual harassment).

Also, even the Chemical Safety Board--which has surprised many with its willingness to actually stand up to the fossil fuel industry voted 2-1 to oppose their own recommendations, essentially agreeing with the Chevron and fossil fuel industry that the European model "goes too far" and "more information is needed"! These results are hardly surprising, given the fact that in any industrial accident, the capitalists are always presumed innocent.

In spite of these challenges and setbacks, the growing movement in Richmond remains undaunted. After the CSB's vote, in an unprecedented move, the minority voter--CSB chair Rafael Moure-Eraso--and Richmond mayor Gayle McLaughlin coauthored a guest editorial (published in the San Francisco Chronicle) "reemphasizing (their) commitment to the substance of the report and its recommendations."

Evidently, Chevron is starting to have serious concerns about their apparent declining ability to maintain control over the hearts and minds of the Richmond residents as the growing opposition gains strength. Proof of the corporation's fear is evidenced by the appearance of a new "community news" website called the Richmond Standard. According to the East Bay Express, the site is run by Mike Aldax, a former reporter for the San Francisco Examiner who is also an executive with Singer Associates Inc., Chevron's San Francisco-based public relations firm, and Aidex makes no secret of the fact that he intends for the site to represent Chevron's side of the story, claiming that the corporation's already ample mouthpieces are insufficient to convince enough residents that the folks running the refinery are the "good guys".

Chevron's P.R. is indeed taking a big dive these days, as they recently tried to save face from an industrial accident that took place on February 11, 2014, in which an explosion at a Chevron Appalachia natural gas drilling site shook the town of Dunkard, PA. The ensuing fire burned for days, and one missing worker has been presumed dead, according to CBS Pittsburgh. According to the folks at No Fracking Way, the corporation tried to preempt community outrage by dispatching its "Chevron Appalachia Community Outreach Team" door-to-door delivering gift certificates for free pizzas to about 100 homes. The coupon is good only for a large special combo pizza from Bobtown Pizza. The voucher also includes a two-liter soda and expires May, 1 2014. Needless to say, the idea didn't go over too well with local residents, and has only provided substantial grist for just about every environmentalist oriented news outlets' mills. The slightly paraphrased (though slightly apocryphal) Marie Antionette quote, "Let them eat (pizza)" has been trending quite heavily on social media since then, obviously not the outcome Chevron intended.

And Gayle McLaughlin is apparently not just stopping with Chevron. There’s evidence that she intends to challenge the capitalist bankers as well. Emboldened (and perhaps—to some extent—pushed) by her constituents’ organizing, the Green Party mayor is threatening to take underwater mortgages by eminent domain from Wall Street banks and renegotiate them on behalf of beleaguered homeowners. If Richmond succeeds in these efforts, it will embolden growing grassroots resistance to not just real estate, bankers, and fossil fuel corporations, but the very bedrock of capitalism itself. Will these efforts succeed? That depends on the willingness of the rank and file community activists to challenge capitalism at the core and keep its "leaders" accountable to the base.


Although there isn’t an oil refinery in Pittsburg, there is an oil storage facility, and the company WestPac—which has ties to the climate denying, fossil fuel owning Koch Brothers—has announced its intentions to bring tar sands into this community by trains.

According to the Bay Area Chapter of the Sierra Club, under WesPac's proposed project, the facility would handle the offloading 242,000 barrels per day of crude oil, storing it in the tank farm, and sending it by pipeline to local refineries. The initial proposal would have taken oil just from ships, but has been revised to include rail cars as well. The project, just one mile from downtown Pittsburg, would significantly expand the combined capacity of the local refineries. The existing facility, a former PG&E tank farm, already has old pipelines connecting it to four of the five local refineries.

As recently as August 2013, WesPac and the City of Pittsburg saw the proposal as a fait acompli, but since then the likelihood of their project moving forward has declined precipitously.

The company’s proposal has brought about a huge backlash from this mostly working class community, one which does not have a prominent history of activism, but has well informed and concerned citizens who do not wish to see their town quite literally wiped off of the map like the poor denizens of Lac Meg´ntic.

More than 2,500 Pittsburg residents and 1,500 other concerned community members have signed petitions against the project.

The opposition has brought the attention of state officials, including California’s Attorney General Kamala Harris. In an 11-page letter delivered to the Pittsburg Planning Department in late January 2014, Harris slammed the city’s Recirculated Draft Environmental Impact Report as legally inadequate. Harris's letter echoes concerns repeatedly raised by residents about the volatility of Bakken shale and WesPac’s clandestine intentions to bring tar sands to the Bay Area.

As described by the environmental NGO, Forest Ethics:

Two diverse community led groups--the Pittsburg Defense Council and the Pittsburg Ethics Council--have emerged within the last six months to lead the campaign against the WesPac project, alongside ForestEthics and other NGO allies. Together, we’ve gathered over 4,000 petition signatures, organized a riveting Toxic Tour of the city’s heavy industrial sites, and conducted a bucket brigade air monitoring project that reveals striking levels of pollution in the community. We’ve flooded downtown Pittsburg with lawn signs, mobilized a January 11 march and rally that brought out over 300 residents.”

The rally and march were covered by retired carpenter and union militant, John Reimann (a frequent contributor to the IWW EUC), who videotaped some of the residents, revealing a very class and environmentally conscious movement that is not likely to back down in spite of capitalist dominance in their community.

According to Jean Tepperman of the East Bay Express,

Pittsburg residents speaking at the rally cited recent explosions of derailed trains shipping crude oil in Quebec, North Dakota, and elsewhere. Lyana Monterrey, who helped spearhead local opposition to the project, said trains carrying crude oil are “bombs on rails.”

Speakers also referred to a current disaster stemming from the processing of fossil fuel: the ongoing crisis in West Virginia, where a toxic chemical used in coal mining, 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, has contaminated the water supply of 300,000 people.

Analysts at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Communities for a Better Environment (CBE) have predicted, based on trends in the petroleum industry, that the WesPac project would bring in extremely dirty crude oil from the Alberta tar sands. Diefenbach has denied any plans to bring in tar sands oil, saying instead that the crude oil would be higher quality, fracked from the North Dakota Bakken shale fields.

But after explosions of derailed train cars containing Bakken crude, the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration warned earlier this month that Bakken crude maybe more flammable than other grades.

The racially diverse crowd in Pittsburg on Saturday included many teenagers and families with children — the need to protect the community’s children was a theme of many speeches and signs. At one point two young sisters read, in unison, a poem they had written about why they opposed the WesPac terminal.

After the rally, the group conducted what may have been Pittsburg’s first protest march, walking several blocks to City Hall. There, the crowd heard from longtime Richmond activists Henry Clark (West County Toxics Coalition) and Andres Soto (CBE), who described their struggles against pollution from the Chevron refinery and pledged solidarity with Pittsburg residents. Soto urged residents to run for office to take local government out of the control of oil companies, whereupon Pittsburg resident George Monterrey announced he had decided on the spot to run for city council next fall.

Since first learning of the WesPac project only a few months ago, Lyana and George Monterrey and other residents created a new organization, the Pittsburg Defense Council, to oppose it. They went door-to-door spreading word of the proposed terminal and enlisted the support of local pastors and community groups, as well as environmental organizations including the NRDC, CBE, the Sierra Club, and 350 Bay Area.

One week later, residents packed the Pittsburg City Council meeting, and—in the face of the angry residents—the council reopened the project EIR for public comment.


As in the case with Benicia, Richmond, Rodeo, and West Pittsburg, this community is also organizing resistance to increased traffic by tar sands oil trains into their community, as the Union Pacific and BNSF mainlines traverse through this town as well.


According to the Bay Area Chapter of the Sierra Club, Valero has proposed a crude-by-rail rail terminal in Benicia could significantly impact the Suisun Marsh, emergency response time, traffic, and noise, and might also help bring in increased supplies of very high-sulfur, low-quality crude oil from Canada’s tar sands.

However, local residents with the help of CBE, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Redwood chapter of the Sierra Club have fought back, pressuring the city to require a full Environmental Impact Report (EIR) on the project. A response is due any day now.


According to the Bay Area Chapter of the Sierra Club, the Phillips 66 refinery in Rodeo has proposed what it bills as a refinery modernization project to collect propane and butane that are currently burned or gassed off at the refinery. The site, however, is attached by pipeline to the Phillips 66 Santa Maria facility, which has submitted a proposal for an additional rail spur to receive more crude.

On Nov. 19 the Contra Costa County Planning Commission considered the Final EIR before a room packed with over 100 people: community activists against the project, and (building trades) union leaders and refinery workers supporting it. Of the public comments, over 30 asked for the EIR to be re-circulated, and only four supported the project. The Planning Commission, however, unanimously certified the Final EIR that evening.

This move angered the community, and local residents, assisted by CBE, the Refinery Action Collaborative and the Bay Area chapter of the Sierra Club, appealed the decision, citing inconsistencies and inaccuracies in the Phillips 66 EIR, to the Bay Area Air Quality Management District Board who found the dissenting challenges to have merit. The agency, in turn, wrote a letter to Contra Costa County questioning their approval of the project, which resulted in another, contentious, public meeting on January 21, 2014, in which outspoken residents squared off against the corporations’ proxies, represented by class collaborationist union officials and other assorted “Mister Blocks”.

"This project means jobs!" said Dave King of Boilermakers Union Local 549—which, as we’ve pointed out is actually Orwellian class collaborationist newspeak for “This project means capitalist profits.

Phillips 66 Refinery worker Julian Harper declared, "I used to be scared walking in, but I'm not now because of the safety measures the refinery has taken," which—given the experiences of workers at Chevron and Tosco (see below), is a very trusting attitude to take indeed.


The aforementioned Golden Eagle refinery is now owned by Tesoro. Tesoro recently made news due to the CSB’s delaying of an investigation into the April 2010 explosion at the Anacortes, Washington facility that killed seven of its workers.

Two days after the CSB announced their delay, no doubt in part due to angry responses from the nearby communities, they recommended tougher regulations and oversight of the Tesoro facility, similar to the recommendations they voted down 2-1 in Richmond two weeks previously.

The draft report released January 29, 2014, recommended that Washington state implement a more proactive safety system at refineries to prevent future accidents. It also called on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to work with the industry to come up with a new regulation requiring chemical facilities to make their operations inherently safer, such as replacing a material with one that’s less hazardous or reducing the amount of hazardous material stored and used. It also recommended that state regulators audit all petroleum refineries in Washington to prevent the kind of equipment failure that occurred at Tesoro’s facility.

CSB Chairman, Moure-Eraso, declared:

Seven lives were tragically lost at the Tesoro refinery in 2010. I believe the draft report does an outstanding job of tracing this complex accident to its roots: a deficient refinery safety culture, weak industry standards for safeguarding equipment, and a regulatory system that too often emphasizes activities rather than outcomes. The report is a clarion call for refinery safety reform.

Needless to say, Tesoro didn’t agree, and--according to the San Francisco Chronicle--on February 12, 2014 (one day more than exactly twenty-five years after an industrial accident took place in the G-P lumber mill in Fort Bragg which would eventually result in Earth First! - IWW Local #1 organizer Judi Bari representing the affected timber workers there), investigators with Cal/OSHA went to the plant when a pipe containing sulfuric acid burst, spraying the two workers in the face with the caustic chemical. The two were flown by helicopter to UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento, where they were treated for first- and second-degree burns and released later that day.

In an unprecedented (and quite probably illegal) move, the next day when investigators from the CSB followed up with their own investigation, Tesoro barred them from accessing the refinery! The Chemical Safety Board has subpoenaed Tesoro to turn over documents about the unit's operations and answer questions related to the accident by March 7, 2014. Workers at the refinery told state investigators that they were "afraid" to operate the unit where the spill occurred because acid leaks occur "all the time," according to a Cal/OSHA report. They said the pipes carrying the caustic fluid are dangerously thin. They said the pipe that failed Feb. 12 broke again just four days later, Cal/OSHA said. Pipe-fitters were working on the unit and "the piping came apart in the exact same spot it did during the accident."

Considering all of the issues taking place in the surrounding communities, the potential for another avenue of resistance to fossil fuel capital blight is wide open. And, in this case, the USW would only be making it blatantly obvious that they represent the company, rather than the workers, (as the IWA--the AFL-CIO woodworkers business union--did in response to Judi Bari's efforts in 1989), if they followed in the footsteps of their PACE predecessors.

Northeast Bay Area Communities Uniting

The affected communities are realizing that united they can stand, but divided or separate they will likely fall. Grassroots activists in the communities surrounding all five of the refinery complexes as well as the proposed WesPac storage facility are organizing in opposition to corporate business as usual and increased transport of oil-by-rail in their towns. In late February and the first weeks of March, the towns of Pittsburg, Martinez, Richmond, and Benicia held public forums jointly organized by local groups--including APEN, Benicians for a Safe Community CBE, The local chapter of Idle No More, the Pittsburg Defense Council, the Richmond Progressive Alliance, the Sunflower Alliance, and the West County Toxics Coalition—in combination with several larger environmental groups, such as, Forest Ethics, Green Action, Natural Resources Defense Council, and Rising Tide North America to raise awareness about the issue.

The panels have consisted of local activists, such as Andres Soto (of CBE), Henry Clark (of Richmond and the West County Toxics’ Coalition), Reverend David Manly (pastor of Stewart Memorial CME Church in Pittsburg, and a former refinery worker himself), Azibuike Akaba, (policy analyst at Regional Asthma Management and Prevention), Marilyn Bardet (Valero refinery watchdog activist and founding member of Benicia’s Good Neighbor Steering Committee), Nancy Rieser (spokesperson from the Crockett-Rodeo-Hercules Working Group, challenging Phillips 66 on its "propane recovery" project), Kalli Graham (of the Pittsburg Defense Council, fighting against the proposed WesPac oil terminal), George Monterey (a grassroots community leader fighting the Wespac crude mega-transfer-storage facility in Pittsburg, CA to supply expanding Bay Area refineries with fracked and tar sands crude oil by rail, pipeline and tanker), Pennie Opal Plant, (Idle No More), and Gayle McLaughlin joined by long time activist David Solnit; author and investigative reporter, Antonia Juhasz, and Lac-Mégantic resident Marilaine Savard.

And the efforts haven’t merely been locally oriented. In each case there has been a concerted effort to tie the issue into the global environmental and economic context, transforming “Not in My Backyard” (NIMBY) to “Not on Planet Earth” (NOPE) as David Solnit frames it.

Further, these efforts have taken a refreshingly class conscious perspective that approaches—but doesn’t necessarily always achieve—an anti-capitalist approach. At the very least there is a conscious effort to look to rank and file workers employed by the refineries as potential allies, or at least, not as enemies.

These groups have also been willing to reach out to others using social media. Some Benicia residents have even created the Facebook page, StopCrudeByRail.

What Next?

There is growing grassroots momentum within the refinery communities of the northeastern San Francisco Bay Area and Delta region, and it’s evident that it goes beyond mere community self interest to encompass the global issues that impact us all, including global warming, fracking and tar sands, the rights of indigenous peoples, fossil fuel capitalism, and the carbon bubble. This movement has a class conscious edge to it as well because, after all, it’s working class communities and communities of color that are disproportionately effected by refineries and other polluting industrial activity. The question remains, however, how will this growing movement evolve?

It goes without saying that this movement must be led by local residents, particularly those most impacted by the effects of toxic pollution and potential disasters in their community. For the most part, that would be working class people and/or people of color. It is they who must ultimately decide how the movement is to proceed.

That said, any strategy that leaves the power in the hands of capital and its enablers—and that includes not just the fossil fuel corporations and the think tanks that propagandize for them, but the capitalist state and its local apparatchiks, including local governments.

While it’s true that, in some cases, grassroots movements can elect progressive firebrands like a Gayle McLaughlin, ultimately she must serve the people. As long as she remains accountable to the rank and file, she can be trusted. So far there has been no indication that McLaughlin has any intent of violating that trust. Indeed she has shown some willingness to challenge capital further, taking on the banks and Wall Street by declaring an intent to use Eminent Domain to address the problem of underwater mortgages. Progressive firebrands who take such power seriously often do not remain in office for long, and it’s a safe bet that Chevron and the powers that be are already gunning for her. It would be wishful thinking indeed to expect that there are sufficient forces to elect a like minded replacement.

Likewise, while it’s a potentially positive development that large, mainstream NGOs are showing some interest in these communities, their involvement must remain under the control of the locals and not vice versa. Most mainstream “Big Green” enviros are beholden to capitalism and as such prone to making deals with the very devils they claim to oppose when it suits them. For example, the Sierra Club has been willing to give California Governor Jerry Brown—who supports fracking, and whose “green” credentials are highly suspect—a “Right Stuff” award for “environmental stewardship. They have also supported gentrification projects, such as eviction of the Albany Bulb encampment and Oak-to-Ninth in Oakland which enable capitalist development which is tied in with the same forces that drive fracking and crude-by-rail. Locals must not get fooled into thinking that without the NGOs they’re powerless on their own. The grassroots, mass based solidarity they need in order to win can and should be built by other means—though if the NGOs can be kept under local control, the resources of the latter can prove invaluable.

Finally, the business union officialdom, including that of the Steelworkers, as progressive as they may sound at times, ultimately sees itself as the “junior partner” of capital, thus leading to class collaboration, many times—as in the case of Golden Eagle refinery in Avon—to the point of throwing their own workers under the bus. As is to be expected, the class collaborationist union officials will tow the company line, arguing that more crude-by-rail means more jobs (forgetting of course that there are many other jobs that could be had by deploying and transporting renewable energy technology). The local organizers must instead look to the rank and file workers and cultivate relationships with them, and not just in the refineries, but on the railroads and the oil barges as well.

And ultimately, any movement that is to successfully exorcise the demons that haunt them must confront the fact that it is capitalism and the very corporations themselves that are the root of the problem. The workers must organize and seize control of the refineries, the rail lines, the shipping companies, and the means of production in combination with the environmental movement organizing for justice in their communities to transform the entire system from within, building a new world in the shell of the old. In some cases, that means that entire industries must be transformed or phased out and replaced with something else. Our very survival as a species depends on it.

Do the people of the affected communities realize the power and opportunity that lies in their hands and is within their grasp? Time will tell. Stay tuned to this space for updates. The future could be very bright indeed.

The Fine Print I:

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