Last week, there was a refinery fire in Richmond, California — the “Gary, Indiana of the East Bay.” The fire, with the accompanying smoke and other pollutants shot into the air over the town, added potential injury to the insult of having to live in Richmond.

Less than a week after the fire, residents were already lining up at a local attorney’s door, hoping to file claims against Chevron. Not surprising, right? But the city already has so many health problems, it might be hard to find many cases worth litigating.

I think I’m getting the black lung, Pop….

The San Francisco Chronicle gives us some details:

Two days after toxic black smoke from the Chevron refinery fire enveloped Richmond, a second phenomenon swept through the city: the rush for money.

More than 1,000 residents claiming to have coughs, nausea, scratchy throats and psychological trauma visited a downtown law office Wednesday in hopes of receiving a payout for their suffering.

Another 1,000 contacted Chevron directly. Chevron was so overwhelmed, it set up a storefront downtown to accommodate the claims and answer questions.

Wow. That’s a quick reaction. But it’s unsurprising, because the city has a long history of problems with poverty and health issues that some say could be tied to the refinery. Unfortunately, the Chronicle says any money claimed from the fire would not be enough for a real long-term solution: moving to a different city.

The city’s history makes it difficult to sort out legitimate claims. The city has the lowest per capita income in the Bay Area, according to the Chronicle. Almost a third of the children in Richmond have been hospitalized for asthma. Because the city’s residents already have such a track record of health problems, an attorney investigating potential claims is realizing how difficult it will be establish causation related to last week’s incident:

Wheezing and coughing aside, not everyone should expect a payout, said [attorney Nick] Haney, who took part in the $200 million General Chemical settlement in Richmond in 1996. General Chemical was the subject of dozens of lawsuits after a tanker ruptured at its rail yard, leaking poisonous gas across much of the city and sending 24,000 people to local hospitals.

“Just because you live in Richmond and there’s a fire, you don’t necessarily get a claim,” he said. “Unfortunately it’s going to be a weeding-out process. … I can only do so much.”

Among his challenges is to determine who suffered legitimate respiratory problems because of the fire and whose conditions predated Monday’s incident. Complicating matters, of the more than 1,700 people who went to local emergency rooms, almost none was admitted to the hospital.

Perhaps sadly, some residents have resigned themselves to a state of Chevron deference. By that, I mean they are deferring to the unavoidable consequences of living near a massive oil refinery:

“The little money they give us isn’t going to bring our health back,” [Constance Delaney, 60, a clerk], said. “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.”

The difficulty of finding suitable claims surely won’t stop attorneys like Haney from trying. In the meantime, I’m going to do my part to decrease our dependence on fossil fuels by riding my bike skateboard around more often.

Chevron claims seen as not worth trouble [San Francisco Chronicle]

Disclosure: Chevron is an Above the Law advertiser.


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