Three Years Later

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By Tania Pulido

The memory is a vivid one for me. It was a beautiful day in Richmond; I was hanging out in my backyard in Richmond Annex when I heard sirens. My heart dropped, the first words that came out of my mouth were, “It’s not Wednesday.” I kept repeating that sentence as I moved closer to the fence to get a better view of the Chevron refinery where a black cloud of smoke was billowing up from, before spreading over parts of Richmond and San Pablo.

Three years have passed since the refinery fire on August 6, 2012. To recognize the anniversary elected officials, community organizations and residents gathered out front of the Richmond Civic Center this year.

The event was held as a way to remember the tragedy while celebrating the community’s resiliency. Speakers included Richmond City Council members Eduardo Martinez and Gayle McLaughlin, along with leaders from local activist groups.

Lipo Chanthanasak an active member in the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, moved to Richmond in 1988 and was deeply affected by the fire. “This is a history we cannot forget,” Chanthanasak said. “We learned that it could’ve been prevented but it wasn’t.”

The fire sent 15,000 people to nearby hospitals, illustrating the damage the refinery could do. As a community gardener with Urban Tilth, I was heartbroken when we decided it was necessary to remove plants from the garden, and stop gardening until we could have soil tests done. I remember being moved hearing co-workers share their stories of digging up their gardens and feeling hopeless, not knowing if their gardens were safe, with the crowd at the town hall meeting following the fire.

Following the fire we experienced a new level of community action. People who normally did not participate in political actions showed up to events, community leaders who tended to be neutral about Chevron’s business practices took to social media to voice their discontent with the corporation and it seemed that from all over the political spectrum people were devastated to experience another explosion.

Stephanie Harvey, a Richmond resident shared her experience at the hospital following the fire. “When I went to Kaiser the doctor was wearing normal clothing, no suit,” she said. “He prescribed aspirin and sent me home. He didn’t even look at my eyes even after I told him about my concerns.”

Others were concerned that not enough had changed for the better in the years following the tragedy. “Chevron is still here polluting,” Olivia Eldred, a nurse with the California Nurses Association told the crowd. “And if there is a next explosion where will people go?” she asked, referring to the recent closer of Doctors Medical Center—a hospital that previously served a large part of Richmond and San Pablo residents.

Reverend Earl Koteen of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Berkeley said that while he believes the people who work at the refinery are not evil, the outcomes and effects the refinery wrecks on nearby communities is. Koteen challenged attendees to find a middle ground with those who work at the refinery and those who are actively organizing to hold them accountable. “May we find love in the battle,” he said.

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Drought Pushes Small Farmers to Be at ‘Top of Their Game’

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News Report,  Nancy DeVille

As California’s record-breaking drought extends into its fourth year, small farmers are struggling. But you wouldn’t necessarily know it by a trip to the local farmers’ market.

That’s because small farmers are doing everything they can – from ancient techniques to high tech – to become more efficient.

Still, many say they are afraid that they have reached “the top of their game,” and further cutbacks could cause economic pain.

“It’s definitely getting drier here and that makes me really nervous,” said Pilar Reber, owner of the Sunnyside Organic Seedlings in North Richmond. Her business grows about 400 kinds of vegetables and herbs to sell to Oakland restaurants and Berkeley co-ops. “I’m using water from a well that I have no way of finding out how much is in it or when it might go dry.  So I can’t plan unless I really know what the future is. If my well ran dry tomorrow, I just don’t know what I’d do.”

Reber is also using high-tech devices. She now uses a GPS system that tracks the wind and temperature to determine exactly how much water the plants need. She’s also planting less and going longer between watering cycles. The staff also mulches all winter long to hold moisture in the soil.

“I can know exactly how much water I need to put down that day because of how much sun and wind we got,” she said. “We are really on top of the curve as far as water management.

“Most farmers are already 75 percent efficient with their water use. So to ask us to cut back another 25 percent, that’s scary, because we are almost already at the top of our game. I think everyone is nervous about it.”

California’s drought can be felt nationwide as homeowners are urged to take shorter showers, stop watering their lawns and forgo the weekly car washes. But the agricultural community is seeing the biggest impact. A recent UC Davis study estimates the industry could lose 18,600 jobs and $2.7 billion in revenue this year.

But it’s not all bad news for smaller farmers. As the demand for local, organically grown produce increases, Richmond farmers’ markets remain popular. Fruits and vegetables are plentiful at the city’s various weekly markets as farmers work hard to keep up with the demand.

Jorie Hanson, owner of Buttercup Farms Garden in Clayton, sells her produce each Wednesday at the Richmond Main Street Farmers’ Market. She sells everything from tomatoes, eggplant, beans and lettuce to strawberries and plums. She’s managed to stay afloat and make a profit but is struggling to ensure that her water usage is compliant.

“It’s already hard to be a small farmer because it’s hard to make money growing vegetables,” Hanson said. “With the drought it adds more pressure to the process because we have to be more conscience of water usage. If they limit my water use any more, I’ll have to go out of business.”

Instead of raising prices, many farmers are choosing to plant significantly less produce than previous years, according to Alyssia Plata, spokeswoman for the Pacific Coast Farmers Association. The association operates over 60 farmers’ markets throughout the Bay Area including the Richmond Main Street Market.

“We do have some farms that just don’t have enough product to come to the markets to sell,” Plata said. “Some have dropped down to only participating in two markets instead of seven.”

“Agriculture has been getting a lot of flack over the drought, but we want people to understand that small farms can’t afford to irrigate with water. And because of the drought, many have reduced one-third of their operation.”

At the Friday Farmers’ Market at 24th Street and Barrett Avenue, some farmers are starting to reduce their volume, but the quality remains, said Steve Ghigliotto, who ran the weekly market for 12 years and recently resigned. The market averages about 20 farmers a week.

“The quality is just as good but they are reduced to selling seconds – fruit that might be bruised a little bit. But their attitude is very good and they are learning that they can do almost as good with less water,” he said.

“Most of them are just taking it in stride. They are not happy with it but they are doing the best they can. If the drought continues, it will have a greater impact.”

While the severity of the drought is constantly discussed, many agriculture advocates agree that the impact on farmers is not widely understood.

“I don’t think the consumer really understands the impact because they are not the ones growing the produce. They won’t really realize that, until a particular produce they like is not here anymore,” Ghigliotto said.

Walking Against Oil and Coal Trains

 

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By Alison Ehara-Brown

In the early morning of July 11th, I joined a group walk along the “blast zones” – the mile-wide sacrifice zones along the rail lines that would be destroyed in any kind of an oil railway explosion. Standing together in a circle as geese flew overhead, Native American leaders, local Refinery town residents and friends from Oakland, shared our concerns about the danger of neighborhoods being destroyed in an oil train blast.

The possibility of such an explosion is becoming more likely.

That’s because the fossil fuel industry is using more extreme methods of extraction in the Tar Sands in Alberta, Canada and fracking in North Dakota’s Bakken Oil Fields. The oil that’s being shipped through our neighborhoods is much more volatile and more likely than traditional crude to explode in the event of a train derailment.

Coal dust blowing off the trains also makes the tracks more slippery, and increases the chances of derailments and explosions. Coal dust also covers neighborhoods, causing respiratory illnesses. As we walked above the railroad tracks, we saw long lines of railway cars full of coal sitting on the tracks, blowing coal dust into the surrounding neighborhoods. Coal, like oil, is a fossil fuel whose use we need to reduce, not increase.

Oakland citizens joined us on the walk, concerned that Oakland developer Phil Tagami is converting the old Army base in Oakland into a port, and four Utah counties are now trying to use Utah state money to use this new port to handle coal. Bay Area residents are pressuring the Oakland City Council to invoke the public health and safety clause in the city’s agreements with Tagami in order to prevent him from building a coal export terminal to ship coal to China.

The walk, sponsored by Idle No More SF Bay and the Bay Area Refinery Corridor Coalition, was part a national week of action to stop oil trains. Participants came from Martinez, San Pablo, Richmond, Crockett/Rodeo, Oakland and Benicia.

It coincided with the second anniversary of the disaster of Lac Megantic, a small town in Quebec where a train oil explosion in July 2013 destroyed the downtown, killing 47 people.

After the walk we joined others at Atchison Village for a rally and march to stop oil trains, hosted by the Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN) along with many other community and environmental justice organizations. Before marching, we heard messages from Richmond Vice-Mayor Jael Myrick, Andrés Soto of Citizens for a Better Environment (CBE), and Richmond residents who live in oil train blast zones. They talked about the danger of oil trains, and demanded the Bay Area Air Quality Management District to revisit the permit they gave for the Kinder Morgan terminal to bring in oil trains to Richmond. They also called for a democratic process to be reinstated to involve proper public notice, public comment and a real review.

Hundreds of people marched to the Richmond BNSF Railway Yard where we stopped to hear Patricia St. Onge of Idle No More share a prayer. Citizens for a Better Environment attorney Roger Lin updated us on legal actions to keep our communities safe from bomb trains, and then we marched on to Washington Park in Point Richmond.

At Washington Park, we heard from a recently retired railway worker, Brian Lewis, who was appalled at the lack of basic safety procedures on the railways, as the cargo being carried becomes increasingly dangerous. We heard poetry from a young hip-hop artist, Kaila Love, sharing her reflections on justice. And we learned more about the big picture of the dangers of climate change from Ethan Buckner of Forest Ethics.

Southeast Asian refugees described leaving their war-torn lands to come to America, only to have their health compromised by the toxicity of living in the refinery corridor in Richmond. Vivian Huang of APEN connected our gathering to the many summer actions of the Our Power Movement. And we were inspired by the words of City Council member Gayle McLaughlin, who during her time as mayor, invited Marilaine Savard of Lac Megantic, to share her story with the people of Richmond, so that we could learn the personal stories of those whose communities were destroyed by bomb trains.

“This is more than just a fight against oil trains. Our lives are on the line,” said Kae Lin Saechao, of APEN, in a press release. “I’ve lived in San Pablo for over 30 years and seen my community suffer long enough from the impacts of the fossil fuel industry. We want to see solutions: a clean, renewable energy economy that serves both people and the planet.”

I was moved to tears many times, feeling that the earth and the air and all of life was cheering us on, that we have a chance if enough of us rise up everywhere to alter the course of history, and leave a beautiful, safe world for the next generations and all of life.

Alison Ehara-Brown is a member of Idle No More SF Bay

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How I Learned to Stop Littering… and Start Composting

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Commentary • Ronvel Sharper

Many teachers helped me through my sophomore year at Richmond High, two of them especially: Mr. Angel Ponce-Larsen and Mr. Richard Seeber. They tried their best to prepare students for the future in different ways, though students don’t see that most of the time.

Mr. Ponce assigns loads of work, pushing you to your limit, to help you reach or exceed your potential. For some, that’s absolute torture, but I really enjoyed being his student. I would have deliberately failed his class just so I could take it again — but that would have looked bad on my record, and my parents would have given me a huge lecture before taking away my phone (which is my life).

The same goes for Mr. Seeber. He isn’t a strict teacher — compared to Mr. Ponce, anyway — but he’s one who’ll never hate you at all. He stays laid back and even allowed us to use our phones during certain activities — like one time when he let us listen to music as we wrote essays.

They both emphasized two things: Mr. Ponce always hinted that he wanted us to push ourselves to great heights and be the best we could, while Mr. Seeber always told us to be positive, because there are many things to look forward to in life.

But together, they helped me get involved in making Richmond a more environmentally friendly place.

They introduced me to the Y-PLAN program, which stands for Youth — Plan, Learn, Act, Now! Y-PLAN engages teens in city planning projects and gives them an opportunity to research and present ideas to city officials.

Along with my biology teacher Clare Sobetski — who’s passionate about this kind of stuff — Y-PLAN has made me more aware of my environment.

I’d already worked with another environmental group called Earthteam, so I thought this would be all review to me. I was wrong.

Through Y-PLAN, I learned that environmental sustainability is about maintaining the conditions that let nature and human beings exist together — basically, peacefully coexisting with what we need for human life. But we also learned about individual subjects, dividing into groups that researched topics like “maintenance” and “compost.”

My group created a presentation about why composting has become important for the environment and sustainability, and how it can help make Richmond a more eco-friendly city. I knew from the start that we would create presentations based on our subjects — but I didn’t have a clue we would present to the mayor.

I suck at presentations, but we practiced and I improved my oral presentation skills a bit. When the big day came, my nervousness almost overcame me, until my group members “helped” by giving signs not to forget what I was supposed to say (such as dirty looks every time I stuttered). Now I’m always striving to help make Richmond a better community, and it was really fun, too.

Without these teachers to introduce me to Y-PLAN, I wouldn’t have known how bad the environment had become, wouldn’t have begun to care for it, and would probably be littering to this day.

Richmond Commuters Trade Four Wheels For Two

By David Meza

Sequoia Erasmus,Gabino Arredondo,Emila Lipman,Marilyn Langlois,Jovanka Beckles, Adam Linz

Even though the weather threatened to rain on their parade, nearly 700 Richmond commuters took part in the annual Bike to Work Day May 14.

The event encourages commuters to leave their cars at home and choose alternate transportation to get to work — a way to save on gas, skip traffic and get some exercise all in one.

The City of Richmond, in collaboration with local businesses and advocacy groups, hosted four “energizer stations” across the city where riders could get coffee, snacks and a tote bag filled with giveaways on their way to work. Stations were located at Marina Bay Park, the Richmond Greenway, the intersection of San Pablo and Macdonald avenues and the Richmond BART station.

Mike Uberti, a health and sustainability associate with the city, said Richmond has organized a Bike to Work Day for the past six years.

“Bike to Work is special because it is a regional event, with Richmond riders joining the greater Bay Area to showcase biking as an effective, popular mode of transportation,” Uberti said. “It also encourages first-time riders, or people who may not just regularly bike, to think of bicycling as more than an activity or hobby, but also as a reliable commute option.”

For Emila Lipman, the event became her first time riding her bike to work. Now, she said, “I will try to bike the 14 miles to work once a month.”

New this year were volunteers from Pogo Park, who took pedestrian-biking surveys at the Richmond Greenway station, looking to find out more about bike use and pedestrian infrastructure needs in the community.

Uberti said this was also the first year that the event didn’t see a substantial increase in riders — which he said was a good thing.

“In the past, we were noticing a growing trend, but now we are starting to see a more established base of riders who recognize biking as a safe and reliable option within Richmond,” he said. “We hope to continue to build bicycling as a cost-efficient, sustainable, and safe method of transportation for the Richmond community.”

Other organizations to participate included Bike East Bay, 511 Contra Costa, Rich City Rides, The Richmond Bicycle / Pedestrian Advisory Committee and local business SunPower.

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The Great Tomato Sale

Photo Essay • David Meza

Did you know that Russia has its own special tomato? How about Japan? Kentucky?

If you attended the Great Tomato Plant Sale, “Heirlooms Of The World,” at the AdamsCrest Urban Farm in East Richmond Heights Apr. 11, you would have seen all of them and more. University of California Master Gardeners,
along with city environmental officials and local agricultural advocates, all collaborated to host the annual event, now in its fourth year.

The sale featured high-quality heirloom tomato and vegetable plants, each for $3. More than 200 attendees chose from over 50 varieties of tomatoes, raised by master gardeners from the university and recommended to grow well in home gardens in this area. Also for sale were varieties of vegetable plants, grown on the farm by Urban Tilth, which advocates for healthy food and cultivates agriculture in the county.

The tomato plant sale proceeds will go to support community education classes and the community gardens at the university. Master gardeners from the university were also on hand to answer questions on plant selection, planting, fertilizing, pruning, harvesting and protecting plants from insects.

In partnership with the master gardeners, the city of Richmond’s Environmental and Health Initiatives gave away free compost to community members at the event. Traditionally, the city hosts its own annual compost giveaway, but this year joined forces with the university and Urban Tilth for a community collaboration.

“Instead of hosting [the compost giveaway] independently like past years, we felt the event and donation would be more effective if we collaborate with groups already leading gardening and urban agriculture initiatives in the community,” according to Richmond Health and Sustainability Associate Mike Uberti.

Republic Services donated the compost from its Richmond facility. Richmond remains one of the only cities in the Bay Area with a closed-loop composting program, in which it transforms food scraps from residents into compost and returns it to them.

Along with offering vegetable and locally made honey, staff from Urban Tilth coordinated their monthly volunteer day, in which community members can learn hands-on about sustainable methods for growing food while harvesting fresh fruits and vegetables.

AdamsCrest Farm, formerly a field of the recently closed Adams Middle School, was repurposed by Urban Tilth into an operational farm in 2009.

Green 2.0 Wants to Know: How Diverse Is Your Staff?

By Chanelle Ignant

A national campaign to make environmental groups more racially diverse is asking Bay Area non-profits to share their diversity data with the public.

It’s the first step in addressing a problem that’s been going on for decades: People of color are disproportionately affected by environmental problems like pollution, yet environmental organizations continue to be almost entirely white.

“Diversifying the staff at foundations, non-profits, and in government will lead to better decisions and smarter engagement,” said Tomás Torres, the San Diego Border Office Director of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Torres spoke at “Breaking the Green Ceiling,” a forum of more than 200 environmental advocates and community members held this month at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco.

People of color make up less than 16 percent of the staff of environmental organizations, according to a report released last year by Green 2.0, a group dedicated to making the environmental movement more racially diverse.

Authored by Professor Dorceta E. Taylor, the first black woman to earn a Ph.D. from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, the report found that none of the largest environmental groups had a president, vice president, or associate director who was a person of color.

Yet polls show that people of color tend to be more supportive of environmental issues than whites, and are more impacted by environmental problems, from air pollution to lack of clean water.

Through confidential interviews and surveys, the report found that “alienation and ‘unconscious bias’” were hampering recruitment and retention of talented people of color. It also found that while environmental groups talk about the importance of having a diverse staff, they haven’t taken steps to do something about it.

“Commitment to diversity must come from the highest levels of an organization,” said Torres. “Anything less is lip service.”

In order to hold environmental groups accountable, Green 2.0 is asking non-profits to submit their diversity data to GuideStar.

“Submitting data to GuideStar allows us to establish an important baseline to measure diversity efforts,” said Robert Raben, president of The Raben Group and founder of Green 2.0. “We advocate accelerating efforts to diversify the mainstream environmental movement because the current state of diversity in the leadership of the mainstream environmental sector is not where it needs to be.”

So far, Green 2.0 has received pledges from more than 60 leading organizations in addition to over 800 groups that have already submitted their data.

Tech entrepreneur Hank Williams compared the push for transparency to the same pressure placed on the tech industry last year.

“If tech can be transparent about diversity data,” he said, “the green movement can too.”

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Continuing a Tradition of Service

Photo Essay, David Meza

Nearly twenty organizations working under the umbrella group “Friends of the Richmond Greenway,” and hundreds of participants came together on January 19 for the 8th annual Martin Luther King Jr. National Day of Service on the Richmond Greenway—a special tradition in Richmond.

The day of service started with big smiles and sleepy children as volunteers picked up trash, laid down mulch to help control weeds, planted native flowers and shrubs and rode bikes up and down the greenway.

This year, residents also gave input to shape the new “Unity Park,” a $5 million project funded by the California State Parks Department to transform sections of the greenway into a park featuring a community plaza, children’s play area and community garden. According to organizers an estimated 80 local residents will be hired and paid prevailing wage from the grant funds to complete specific tasks.

Chiffon Pruitt from Artisan Hub, a Richmond art collective, led a group providing input on the greenway and added mulch to a newly adopted spot.

The event also drew out newcomers to Richmond, like Shala White from Pinole.

“I never knew anything about the greenway,” White said. “I got there and I was impressed that the community could come together to create something so beautiful in a town that has so much negativity pinned to it.”

“My favorite part was seeing people from the mayor on down to high schoolers of every race, ethnicity and background come together to enhance their community,” she added.

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Seeing Gardens in the Blight

Photo Essay, Luis Cubas

Richmond is a city plagued with blight. While some areas are revitalized, too many lots are left empty throughout neighborhoods—standing out like gaps in a crooked smile.

While out on a walk down California Avenue, in the North and East neighborhood near Richmond High School, I passed three large lots in just a few blocks. They looked like they’d gone untouched for years; covered with weeds, garbage and old appliances.

Looking at them, I wondered, “What would happen if these lots were transformed into community gardens?”

Tim Higares, a code enforcement manager in Richmond, said the number of vacant lots is in the hundreds, and growing. But, he said there’s hope in the blight.

He cited the new community garden at Harbor 8 Park on the Richmond Greenway and the ongoing Mathieu Court greening project in the Iron Triangle as examples of efforts to beautify vacant, dilapidated areas.

“The city is in support of anything that will improve or stabilize the community,” he said.

“We would much rather see a beautiful green community garden than a ugly lot that’s full of trash and debris.”

Already some cities, and the state, have taken moves to support the idea of using vacant lots for growing food.

Last November the Oakland City Council approved changes to the city’s agricultural regulations to allow gardeners to grow vegetables on vacant lots and sell without a permit, as long as they receive permission from the property owner. And in 2013, California passed the Urban Agriculture Incentive Zones, which gave private landowners a financial reason to consider turning their vacant lots into a garden oasis: a lower property tax rate for those who allow their land to be leased for urban agricultural for at least five years. Unfortunately this new law isn’t applicable in Richmond because it applies only in urban areas with a population of at least 250,000 people—Richmond has around 110,000 residents.

Nevertheless, I would like to see Richmond’s vacant lots transformed this year. By allowing these spaces to be used for gardening, the community of Richmond could benefit with fresh vegetables, and an improved landscape.

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Composting Program Expands to Richmond Businesses


Nancy Deville, Richmond Pulse

A new weekly curbside service is helping Richmond businesses be a bit greener without the hassle.

Richmond Sanitary has launched a commercial food scrap collection program to pick up scraps from businesses in Richmond, San Pablo, El Sobrante, Pinole, Hercules and unincorporated West Contra Costa County. Under the program, businesses collect food waste like stale bread, chicken bones, coffee grinds and produce along with food soiled paper products and place them in large green bins on the curb for pickup by sanitation workers.

The program is an expansion of the residential food scrap program that launched 2 years ago, and will soon be expanding from collection every other week to weekly.

Food collected from both businesses and residences are composted at the West Contra Costa County Sanitary Landfill, just off Richmond Parkway. The material is eventually converted into a rich compost material, which can be used to enliven plants, instead of buried in landfills, according to Tristan McHenry, recycling coordinator with Richmond Sanitary.

“Recycling food scraps will extend the life of the landfill, it’s environmentally friendly and can feel good doing the right thing,” he said. “So far participation has been really high and we have about 140 business participating.”

Composting is nature’s process of recycling decomposed organic materials into a rich soil known as compost. By composting food scraps, nutrients are returned to the soil in order for the cycle of life to continue. It’s also a step toward reducing the amount of trash sent to landfills.

A significant step, considering food scraps are the number one material found in landfills. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Americans produce more than 34 million tons of food waste, and only 3 percent of that is composted.

Chris Dikes, the kitchen and culinary arts manager at the Richmond based Bay Area Rescue Mission believes turning food scraps into something that can go back into the soil is good for the community.

“It’s pretty beneficial for us because it gives us extra space in our dumpster, and at the same time we’re giving back to mother earth and not just throwing stuff in the landfill,” Dikes said.