Eleven years ago today, a massive fire at the Chevron Richmond refinery clouded the skyline and sent 15,000 Richmond residents to the hospital. APEN’s Contra Costa Political Manager Sandy Saeteurn, a lifelong Richmond resident, reflects on growing up against the constant backdrop of explosions and flaring at the Chevron refinery — and how she chose to hold her ground and fight for a community she loves.
The first fire
When I was in first grade, I remember some lucky students getting handpicked by teachers for a field trip. The prize: a visit to the Chevron refinery, planned just for them.
Standing at the top of the playground slide at recess, all of us kids could see the gray smokestacks of the refinery puffing above the schoolyard. But on that special day, those chosen kids got the VIP treatment: a bus that took them through the high fenced gates of the refinery, where they came back boasting of all the cool things they got to do: tour the plant, eat ice cream in the cafeteria, play basketball, and even (they said) visit a secret swimming pool the rest of us could only imagine.
I didn’t need to feel special at school, I told myself, because my grandmother Nai Sio always made me feel special, like I was her favorite. Even though we weren’t biologically related, she always took care of me, bringing me to family gatherings. There, all of us children got to drink instant Folgers coffee — a treat that we were allowed because the chaman, a religious figure who could speak with the ancestors, had it as well. It tasted bitter, strong, but somehow grown-up.
Nevertheless, I still daydreamed about secret swimming pools, especially in the minutes just before the lunch break.
But one April afternoon, something was different. As my first-grade class ran for the cafeteria, I noticed something strange: the playground and normally blue sky started filling with clouds of white smoke that burned our eyes and noses.
“Get back inside!” Our teachers yelled, pulling us into classrooms and then, as we waited for the clouds of smoke to clear, onto buses. They handed out thin napkins to cover our mouths. We didn’t know it then, but the smoke filling our school yard came from a burst hydrogen pipe at the Chevron refinery. The pipe had exploded, engulfing four workers in flame. Later, we learned that Chevron had delayed reporting the explosion until the absolute last moment, trying to conceal the problem until it became impossible to ignore.
The flames burned into the night as my mom drove me to the emergency room, coughing for breath, eyes swollen, with rashes that covered my whole face and body. Years later, I thought it was lucky that my classmates were not playing basketball or eating ice cream in the Chevron cafeteria that day.
A punch in the gut
The explosion of 1989 was the biggest of my childhood, but I remember many others that dropped soot and chemical dust onto my mother’s garden. My mother would simply rinse the vegetables, and we ate them anyway. She didn’t know better.
Sure, the refinery fires were scary, and the emergency room wait was annoying, but it was just part of life. The mayor, our schools, and Chevron themselves took every chance to tell us how good Chevron was — and I believed it.
All of that changed the summer I joined Asian Youth Advocates (AYA) and learned about environmental justice.
AYA was one of APEN’s first organizing projects: a group of young Laotian women from Richmond who had grown up, like me, near the Chevron refinery and chemical plant. I hadn’t yet started high school when I joined. I was shy, but listened carefully to the organizers explain about redlining and environmental racism.
Several girls in AYA lived, like me, in the public housing projects in North Richmond in tight-knit Mien communities. Sharing meals and planting vegetables together, we were raised with an understanding of mutual care and appreciation for the land. We were also eating and breathing the poison of the oil giant and chemical plant next door.
For the first time, I went to sleep at night thinking about how women’s bodies are impacted by what we eat, drink, and breathe. How our reproductive health and the health of our children depends on the health of our environment — and how our bodies are harmed when there is poison in the air, water, and soil.
I left those AYA meetings feeling like I’d been fooled. It felt like a punch in the gut. All my childhood, I thought that Chevron was a good company. Although I knew that sometimes explosions at the refinery would make us sick, I didn’t think beyond a small payout from Chevron for a trip to the ER and a few rashes. I looked forward to getting rich from the payouts when I turned 18 years old.
I didn’t know that many years later, living so close to the refinery would give my 14 month old baby cancer twice, or give my other children allergies and skin irritations.
Most importantly, I didn’t know that we could do anything about it.
Chevron can’t buy our silence
When the refinery exploded again in 2012, I was standing outside with my mother in the yard with a clear view of the black clouds of smoke. I had a feeling of déjà vu as I remembered that six year old girl running for the field, stopping and seeing the wave of white, chemical-smelling smoke fill the schoolyard. I remembered the fear and confusion I had felt back then.
But in 2012, I understood what was happening, and who was causing it. As I helped my mother inside to shelter, I was already picturing the names and faces of everyone I needed to call: I needed to be sure that this sister had her windows closed, or that a grandmother wasn’t out weeding the garden.
In 1989, I hadn’t known I could plan meetings, build campaigns, or that I could speak and have city council members respect what I had to say. All I knew was that I wanted to keep myself, mother, grandmother, my sisters and brother safe from all the harm in the world.
In my 26 years organizing with APEN I’ve learned to knock doors, build coalitions, and win campaigns, and empower my community. Together, everyday Richmonders fought and won an end to cancerous petroleum coke dust trains in Richmond and beat back millions in oil dollars to elect progressive leaders to the city council.
Through it all, I’ve supported and empowered other young people to build their confidence and ability to speak up for themselves.
Whether in Laos or right here in Richmond, California, our government too often allows big corporations like Chevron to continue business as usual, putting their profits above the health and safety of neighborhoods like mine.
But now I know that I have a voice and a vote, and that I can fight back.
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