.People Power: How networking won a vital air pollution fight

On July 21, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District Board of Directors voted 19–3 for a strong new rule that will force the Chevron and PBF refineries to drastically reduce emissions of a particularly toxic form of particulate matter within five years.

Three major factors propelled the landmark, landslide decision: coalition, credibility and climate change.

Environmental groups have advocated for the regulation for years. But this time, new allies in health and equity organizations joined new voices on the BAAQMD board and committees to change the narrative from “loss of jobs and profit” to ongoing and systemic damage to frontline communities and beyond. The reverberations of this will extend much further than one decision.

Condensed history: By 2017, BAAQMD had created a “Clean Air Plan” for reducing particulate matter and other emissions. But after intense lobbying by the Western States Petroleum Association, the state legislature passed “cap-and-trade” AB-398, effectively eliminating individual air districts’ power to limit greenhouse gasses.

However, the package of bills also included AB-617, mandating air districts to set up community-driven processes to reduce air pollution in the state’s most heavily impacted areas. Controlling particulate matter, especially PM2.5—tiny, inhalable particles that lodge in the respiratory system and are linked to asthma, high blood pressure, strokes, lung ailments and even premature death—became a priority. Richmond/San Pablo and West Oakland were chosen in the first AB-617 group.

“After AB-398, we began to focus on emissions. AB-617 was very crucial,” said Steve Nadel, member of the Sunflower Alliance Coordinating Council. He noted that the general public has become much more aware of the dangers of particulate matter since California wildfires caused many to visit websites tracking air pollution.

Focusing on emissions meant focusing on the refineries’ fluid catalytic cracking units—known as “cat crackers”—which produce half of all particulate emissions. That meant focusing on the installation of “wet gas scrubbers.”

“Wet gas scrubbers remove most of the particulate matter. BAAQMD can only regulate emissions, not the use of WGMs, but [installing them] is the only road right now to get there,” said Dan Sakaguchi, Communities for a Better Environment (CBE) staff researcher.

When BAAQMD’s Stationary Source Committee recommended the strongest changes to regulations on cat crackers in March 2021, the battle began, with Chevron and PBF claiming the expense involved in installing wet gas scrubbers would force layoffs—despite the fact that the Benicia Valero refinery installed the technology in 2010, creating jobs for building trades members for over two years, according to CBE’s Andres Soto.

“The refineries are very comfortable wielding their influence,” said Jacob Klein, regional organizer for the Sierra Club, San Francisco Bay Chapter, citing pressure on BAAQMD board members, who are appointed, and are county supervisors, mayors, vice mayors and city council members.

“There is a history of refineries spending money in local elections to defeat members of the Air Board,” said BAAQMD Board Member and Contra Costa County Supervisor John Gioia. Billboards and YouTube videos have targeted him in the past.

But this time, the other side had new battle strategies. Its coalition included 

Communities for a Better Environment, Sunflower Alliance, Asian Pacific Environmental Network, Climate Health Now, 350 Bay Area, 350 Contra Costa, Center for Biological Diversity, Healthy Richmond, San Francisco Bay Physicians for Social Responsibility, Crockett-Rodeo United to Defend the Environment, Sierra Club, System Change Not Climate Change, California Nurses Association and SEIU Local 1021. 

“Collaboration is where power is,” Klein said.

“Without the network, the refineries would have won,” said Steve Rosenblum, 350 Bay Area member and a volunteer for the BAAQMD Network, an ad hoc group meeting to share information and generate public action.

Key new allies included multiple health professional organizations, including one formed in 2019, Climate Heath Now (CHN). Co-founder Ashley McClure, M.D., said that the group invited CBE’s Soto to speak on several occasions to get them up to speed on the cat cracker fight. CHN Co-Founder Amanda Millstein, MD’s powerful op-ed, which appeared in Bay Area newspapers July 18, urged readers to take action before the July 21 vote, citing a personal story of a young Richmond patient whose asthma had dramatically affected his health. “We held meetings with BAAQMD board members to educate them on the health implications [telling them], ‘You have a responsibility,’” McClure said. CHN also urged the Alameda/Contra Costa County Medical Association’s 5,000 members to write letters to BAAQMD board members. Many did.

Other coalition members stepped up. CBE mobilized its members through emails and postings, as did the Sierra Club and the Sunflower Alliance. Many of those interviewed pointed to the critical work of former 350 Bay Area organizer Jed Holtzman, who spoke with multiple board members. 

The increasingly active voice of the Asian Pacific Environmental Network joined in. Speaking for the large Asian community, which in Richmond alone includes 10,000 Laotian Americans, APEN held a press conference in front of BAAQMD offices in San Francisco, said Senior Community Organizer Torm Nompraseurt. Knowing the language barrier faced by many elders, APEN mobilized its younger members to call in to public meetings.

Another crucial argument: climate change. Said Virginia Reinhart, director of the Sierra Club SF Bay Chapter, “This year has been galvanizing for people on climate change, and [that has resulted in] changes in the attitudes of BAAQMD staff.”

“Our social influence is a gift to the climate justice movement,” said CHN’s McClure. “We can translate climate science, connect it to a child’s safety.”

By the time of the first public comment meeting on June 2, the coalition was ready. The meeting, featuring a detailed staff presentation, included health impacts, particularly on communities of color. Public comments from both sides caused it to run for 7.5 hours, so long that a vote on Rule 6.5 had to be deferred.

But the writing may already have been on the wall. Said John Gioia, “Where [the refineries] lost the issue was when we saw the new staff health analysis. This was the first time the Air District did a very comprehensive health analysis. [It] shared stark visuals about effects on Black and Brown communities. This will be part of future rule-making.”

The coalition strategized for the July 21 meeting, with the goal of “get this passed now,” Klein said. Only members of the public who had not spoken at the June 2 meeting would be allowed to comment, so the organizations chose people to present specific points, again emphasizing community health, environmental justice for communities of color and the urgency to take action on climate change.

The six-hour meeting included a motion by a board member to further table the vote to “study” the less-stringent alternative. But it also included vehement statements from Gioia, Bauters and Hart in support of the stronger rule, and when the time came to vote, even one “no” vote admitted he could see “which way the wind was blowing.”

Chair Chavez called the vote, and the stronger amendment to Rule 6.5 was overwhelmingly adopted. Chavez’s closing statement noted her empathy for the refinery workers who fear job loss, but also commented on Chevron’s reluctance to engage in the discussion. She elaborated on this in the Aug. 11 Zoom meeting, saying, “We gave them every opportunity … they shrugged.”

As for BAAQMD itself, “The Air District board needs community representation,” said the Sunflower Alliance’s Nadel. BAAQMD is currently recruiting for a Community Advisory Council. Applications will be accepted on the BAAQMD site until 5pm on Sept. 7.

On Aug. 10, another towering black smoke plume arced across the Richmond sky from two flaming Chevron smokestacks. Despite residents experiencing stinging eyes and sore throats from the release of sulphur dioxide, the refinery published its usual statement: “A Community Warning System Level 1—the lowest on the scale—was issued to keep residents informed.” The Richmond Fire Department posted: “No actions from the public are needed.”

The public, however, has other ideas.

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