Chevron Under Fire for Slow Response to Massive Blaze, as Area Residents' Health Concerns Mount

After a massive blaze broke out at a Chevron oil refinery in Richmond, Calif.

After a massive blaze broke out at a Chevron oil refinery in Richmond, Calif. on Monday officials say more than 900 people have been treated at emergency rooms in the region for symptoms caused by the subsequent toxic smoke that enshrouded the Bay Area. Chevron is now coming under fire for a stunted response to the gas leak which lead to the fire that burned for more than four hours with flames reaching 40 feet in the air.

Thousands of people complaining of ailments caused by smoke inhalation will be attempting to make legal claims. More than 1,000 residents visited a downtown Richmond law office Wednesday, which put out a sign reading 'Chevron claims filed here.' Another 1,000 contacted Chevron directly. Chevron was forced set up a storefront downtown to deal with the onslaught of claims.

"I want enough money so we can move someplace with clean air," Monica Marquez, 28, told the San Francisco Chronicle. Marquez said she and her four children are suffering from wheezing and headaches since Monday's fire. "I've lived here my whole life, but I've had enough. We need to get out and right now we can't afford to."

"The little money they give us isn't going to bring our health back," Constance Delaney, 60, told the Chronicle. Delany said her entire family and most of her friends and neighbors in Richmond, known as an industrial hotbed, suffer from respiratory problems.

"We moved here from San Francisco because we couldn't afford it there anymore. Now we know why Richmond was so cheap. But a few hundred dollars isn't going to help us move somewhere without all this pollution."

Richmond has the lowest per capita income in the Bay Area -- $24,781 annually, 35 percent lower than the Bay Area median. More than a third live below the federal poverty level.

Almost a third of children in Richmond, which is known for industrial pollution, have been hospitalized for asthma -- three times the rate countywide, the Chronicle reports.

Mischa Adkins, 32, of Richmond said she already has lupus and failed kidneys and Monday's smoke only made things worse.

"I've lived through years of Chevron having these problems," she said.

Chevron's Richmond refinery, which has had multiple fires in the past, has been cited by San Francisco Bay area regulators for violating air regulations 93 times in the past five years.

The number has increased from 15 violations in 2007 to 23 in both 2010 and 2011. The refinery is also the state's largest emitter of greenhouse gases.

The long-term impacts the blaze will have on the area's residents is still unknown, according to Andy Katz, director of air quality and government relations for Breathe California.

"There's still really a lot of information left to learn," he said. "This disaster has impacted the health of the community, Richmond residents deserve to know what the long-term impacts will be."

Chevron's response to the refinery fire is currently under criticism.

The gas leak that lead to the blaze started as a drip at about 4:15 p.m. Monday, officials said; however, Chevron failed to act, as it did not treat the leak as an immediate danger to residents nearby. Chevron is required to immediately notify the public of any gas leak, fire or oil spill, according to state law.

Hundreds of people heckled a panel of Chevron and local officials over the issue at a Tuesday night community meeting in Richmond.

Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin said the fire was unacceptable and called for the company to improve its early-warning system.

"We live with the day-to-day risk of this type of manufacturing and refining that has an impact on our community with pollutants being released, but with the accident that happened yesterday, that doesn't mean it's acceptable, because it's not," McLaughlin said.

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