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Emergency Council Meeting: More Air Issues in Richmond

Over the past week, Richmond has been dealing with completely unacceptable air conditions. First, Chevron exposed residents to a massive flaring event that could be seen across the Bay Area. Now, Veolia has decided to give Chevron a run for its money.

An unbearable smell has blanketed the area surrounding the wastewater treatment plant. I was at the Port on Monday afternoon, and my staff and I were overwhelmed by the awful smell. On Monday evening, we began receiving alerts that hydrogen sulfide levels had spiked in the area.

At moderate levels of exposure, hydrogen sulfide can cause irritation to the eyes and respiratory system, nausea, vomiting, and headaches. At higher levels, hydrogen sulfide can cause convulsions and comas. Indeed, residents have been frantically reporting headaches and breathing issues since Monday afternoon.

It’s important to note, too, that this area is not only a highly residential area of our city, but an area that has a) nearby elementary schools; b) a dense elderly population; and c) our densest area housing people of color.

Richmond’s wastewater treatment plant, run by Veolia, can be located on the above map.

Now, as with Chevron’s flaring event, we are being denied real answers and real solutions. Veolia did not provide any communications to the city that I am aware of until 27 hours after the first alert, and that was after multiple instances of inquiry from city staff. When they did respond, it was beyond insulting:

This is a screenshot of communications with Veolia regarding this latest spike.

For a history of Richmond’s relationship with Veolia, I suggest this article by City Councilmember Claudia Jimenez. In short, the City turned over the keys of our wastewater plant to Veolia because it was cheaper than going with a public agency, like EBMUD.

This is why it’s wrong for cities to focus only on how much things cost. When basic services are provided by the cheapest option possible, quality suffers. Our safety suffers.

Think of it like this: when you’re looking for an apartment to rent, you look within your budget. What’s the rent you can afford, month after month? That’s a necessary approach. But you don’t look for the cheapest thing you can find, without any regard for what you need. You don’t rent something without a bathroom, just because it’s the cheapest option you find, if you can afford better. There are some things that are non-negotiable, unless you’re completely desperate.

Governments have a duty to provide residents with those “non-negotiables.” The air we breathe is one of those things. Residents must have safe air to breathe and safe water to drink. And Veolia has a poor track record for both. Check out this article from The Intercept. The authors note:

The two lead crises have another important thing in common: a private water company named Veolia. The world’s largest supplier of water services, Veolia had contracts with both Flint and Pittsburgh around the time that lead levels rose in their drinking water. And in both places, Veolia wound up in legal disputes over its role in the crises.


The promise of saving money has been central to Veolia’s appeal to cash-strapped cities and towns struggling with water provision (emphasis mine).”

Unfortunately, many governments (including Richmond) buy into the myth that contracting out services to private corporations makes things more efficient and cheaper. But here’s a dirty secret: legal contracts and laws are just pieces of paper that corporations ignore all the time.

Sure, we have all sorts of legal agreements and regulations with companies in our city. But what corporations count on is that we can’t afford to enforce these laws and contracts. Litigation costs a lot of money, and corporations have deep pockets to fight us every step of the way. And, as we all know, there are several corporations in Richmond that would drain our pockets, easily, if we went after them all. Giving us the bare minimum, even if it risks our health, is the business model.

One of my first actions as Mayor was to establish a committee to work closely with Public Works, Councilmember Zepeda (in whose district Veolia is located), and Councilmember Robinson (who represents the district directly abutting Councilmember Zepeda’s) on the condition of our wastewater and stormwater infrastructure. But that’s a place for planning our future. We need action now, because residents can’t wait several years for better air.

Please join us this coming Tuesday, December 12th, for an emergency special meeting to discuss this unacceptable situation. Your comments and concerns are welcome— make your voice heard!

In community,

Mayor Eduardo

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