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Several hundred residents turned out Tuesday night for a emotional town meeting in the Bay Area city of Richmond to discuss the recent Chevron refinery fire.
Packing the auditorium to the rafters, the angry crowd booed and shouted down county and refinery related representatives alike, including refinery General Manager Nigel Hearne, County director of hazardous materials Randall Sawyer, and head of the county’s Community Awareness and Emergency Response Department Katherine Hearn.
Said Dr. Henry Clark , executive director of the West County Toxics Coalition, in reference to the warning response system, “This warning system has not worked from Day One. There’s always been the wrong people getting the warning, not enough people getting the warning.”
Hearn said that the first notifications go to the media and that the emergency broadcast system is set off. After that, she said, there are sirens and telephone calls, and other alerts.
Dr. Wendel Brunner, county director of public health and a rare representative allowed to speak, was applauded by the crowd in his report of hospital admittance rates. Brunner said that initial reports of 425 people going to the emergency room during and after the fire had risen to 949 by Tuesday evening.
“Fortunately, of the 949, none had been injured enough that they had to be admitted to the hospital,” Brunner told the crowd. “Just because no one was injured enough that they didn’t have to be admitted to the hospital doesn’t mean this is OK. Just because they will recover … it doesn’t mean that this exposure is OK or acceptable.”
Immediately after, the meeting’s question-and-answer session turned into a verbal brawl, which didn’t stop until the meeting ended.
Furious resident Rev. Kenneth Davis was first to the microphone. “Where can I shelter? How long can I hold my breath?” Davis demanded. “What about our dogs, our cats, our chickens, our children?”
Richmond resident Bruce Atkin, 55, had question that encompassed the troubles facing many in this hard-knock city.
“When we go to the doctor, who’s gonna pay the bill? I don’t got no money,” Atkin told the panel.
Addressing the crowd he said, “You all talk about Chevron getting out of Richmond. Do you want to see a ghost town? … There will be no work, no money, no nothing. Stop being mad and start thinking outside the box.”
Hearne, the refinery general manager, promised that the company would stand behind its 110-year history in Richmond.
As for the bills? “Chevron will take responsibility for all legitimate claims that come in,” Hearne promised.