In the Shadow of Big Oil: Walks Unite Frontline Refinery Communities

Community healing walks organized by Native American environmental activists are drawing increased attention to the high rates of asthma, cancer and environmental racism experienced by neighbors of the five large oil refineries in the northeast San Francisco Bay area. The healing walks are organized by the San Francisco Bay Area chapter of Idle No More. Do you want media that’s accountable to YOU, not to corporate sponsors? Help publish journalism with real integrity and independence – click here to donate to Truthout! Community healing walks organized by Native American environmental activists are drawing increased attention to the high rates of asthma, cancer and environmental racism experienced by neighbors of the five large oil refineries in the northeast San Francisco Bay area. “I have lived in Richmond in the shadow of the Chevron refinery for many decades now, raising my children in this refinery town,” said Alison Ehara-Brown, one of the organizers of the Refinery Corridor Healing Walks. “When our children have high asthma rates, when our family members are getting cancer and collapsed lungs at an early age … then we know that we are living in a culture that needs healing.” The Refinery Corridor Healing Walks bring Richmond residents, environmental advocates and residents from the greater Bay Area together to discuss the health and environmental impacts of five colossal refineries in the East Bay. These refineries are tucked away from the high-tech buzz and allure of Silicon Valley and San Francisco. The healing walks are organized by the San Francisco Bay Area chapter of Idle No More, one of the largest grassroots movements of Aboriginal peoples in Canada calling for a peaceful revolution for affirming indigenous sovereignty and protection of land and waterways. Ehara-Brown takes part in the group as an activist with part-Cherokee ancestry. There are four healing walks organized this year by Native American environmental advocates; these walks traverse refineries lining the East Bay, crude-by-rail tracks, neighborhoods, bridges and the bay. “We want to bring to the mainstream this lexicon of ‘refinery corridor’ so that we understand what some communities experience daily living next to these toxic sites,” said Pennie Opal Plant, a longtime Native-American environmental justice advocate who was inspired by the tar sands healing walks in Alberta and had a vision to start the walks in the East Bay. The third healing walk, organized June 20, began with a morning water ceremony led by Native-American elders in the historic town of Benicia, California’s former state capital, which is home to Valero refinery. The walk included interfaith leaders from the Jewish, Buddhist and Christian traditions emphasizing the need to transition to renewable energy and demanding accountability from big oil to community health and safety. “I am here because I see systemic injustices, especially against people of color,” said Reverend Will McGarvey of the Interfaith Council of Contra Costa County. “Richmond and Pittsburg have some of highest asthma rates. Members of my own congregation are at risk with the pollution that’s prevalent here.” The 12-mile walk began from Benicia and ended in the city of Rodeo, which is home to a Phillips 66 refinery, the first major oil refinery in the Bay Area. The Board of Supervisors approved an expansion of the refinery, alarming environmental advocates. The refinery sits on an earthquake liquefaction zone, and local residents are worried that the expansion plans could exacerbate air pollution and public safety. An oil boom from Tar Sands and Bakken crude in North Dakota has precipitously increased crude-by-rail operations in the United States, and Bay Area residents, particularly those living by the refineries, are worried about bomb trains – named so because of the high combustion fuel they carry and the risks they pose – passing through their communities. “Why should any community be a sacrifice zone for the fossil fuel industry? Would those making these types of decisions allow their families to live in these sacrifice zones? If not, then no one should live in them,” concluded Opal Plant. The third Refinery Corridor Healing Walk started with a water ceremony led by Native Americans in the historic town of Benicia, which is home to Valero Refinery. Pennie Opal Plant gathered water in a bucket from the bay surrounding the city and talked about the sacredness of the waterways. This water was carried through the 12-mile walk. (Photo: Rucha Chitnis) Community members, activists, artists, faith leaders and other Bay Area residents gathered around to commit to building a future that transitioned away from dirty crude to one, where access to healthy jobs and clean environment was not a privilege for a chosen few. (Photo: Rucha Chitnis) “I am here to protest the crude by rail oil that might come to communities here from Tar Sands in Canada or the Bakken oil from North Dakota. These oils are highly flammable, and if there is an accident we are in big trouble,” said Gary Shortbull of Chickasaw heritage. (Photo: Rucha Chitnis) Ayya Santussika Bhikkhuni, who is part of Buddhist Climate Action Network, joined the walk from her monastery in Mountain View. “We want to approach climate change from the Buddhist perspective, which is fully supportive of life and believes in not causing harm. It is my responsibility as a spiritual teacher to speak out about climate change. We have an economic system that is condemning so many people to poverty, starvation and suffering. As climate change progresses, we know there is devastation for so many people,” she shared. (Photo: Rucha Chitnis) Bryan Parras, Co-Founder of Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services, joined the walks as an act of solidarity. “Ultimately we need to get off our addiction to fossil fuels and look at our consumption habits. These walks are important because they help to raise consciousness of people.” (Photo: Rucha Chitnis) “We need to heal from the ways we have been part of destroying our beautiful earth. We need to heal from the hurt, which has clouded our minds as humans and allowed the destruction of communities and sacred sites to happen. We need to bring healing to our land, our air, our water and our hearts,” shared Alison Ehra-Brown, one of the organizers of the healing walks. (Photo: Rucha Chitnis) Thirteen-year old Cinnamon Perez, of Lakota heritage, led the prayer staff for part of the walk. “I went for the first walk and wanted to come back again,” she said. Cinnamon, who shared her love for the ocean and hoped that environmental health would be restored one day. (Photo: Rucha Chitnis) The youngest participant of the march, 3 month-old Lillian Berry-Philip, was also on the walk last year—in her mother’s womb. (Photo: Rucha Chitnis) An ebullient five year-old Kinyaanii Chief chatted and kept up with the walkers. According to Contra Costa Asthma Coalition, some areas of Richmond and San Pablo have hospitalization rates of asthma, which are “more than double that of the state average among children 0-14 years of age,” and hospitalization rates are highest among school-aged African American children. (Photo: Rucha Chitnis) Chaitanya Diwadkar, member of Alliance of South Asians Taking Action, waved a Clean Water and Energy flag at the ongoing vehicular traffic on the Carquinez Bridge. “As a privileged South Asian immigrant, who lives off resources that were stolen from Native people in the Americas and all around the world, it is a moral obligation to support in any way possible the courageous efforts of people whose ancient wisdom is humanity’s only hope against a certain extinction,” he expressed. (Photo: Rucha Chitnis) “The Refinery Corridor Healing Walks are near and dear to me, where my multiple identities collide and manifest as a singular entity. I have been an environmental advocate for years and as a Benicia local, the Bay Area’s refinery corridor is literally my home — the place of my upbringing,” shared Daniel Adel, a second generation Bangladeshi American. (Photo: Rucha Chitnis) “People are waking up to the understanding of their responsibility to the future of life. The saying “think globally and act locally” has never been as vital as it is now. The walks are one way for people to act locally by joining us to bring awareness to the five refineries along the Northeast San Francisco Bay,” noted Pennie Opal Plant. (Photo: Rucha Chitnis) The walkers exited Carquinez Bridge and headed towards Phillips 66 Refinery in Rodeo. (Photo: Rucha Chitnis) Rebekah Olstad of Earth Justice, an environmental justice group with a nifty tagline: “Because the Earth needs a good lawyer,” stood in front of Phillips 66 Refinery, one of Bay Area’s oldest refineries. (Photo: Rucha Chitnis) The healing walk came to a close with members of the Rodeo community welcoming the walkers with food, beverages and songs with a message for peace and justice. Opal Plant and Ehara-Brown released the water collected from the Benicia bay into the waterways in Rodeo. (Photo: Rucha Chitnis) “We have to consider our own habits, our consumption patterns, our ethos and philosophy that we can destroy the planet without any consequences,” reflected Bryan Parras. (Photo: Rucha Chitnis) The final healing walk for 2015 is on Sunday, July 19, from Rodeo’s Conoco Phillips 66 Refinery to Richmond, which is home to Chevron Refinery. Chevron is also one of California’s largest polluter and emitter of green house gas. (Photo: Rucha Chitnis)


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