In the early evening on August 6th, residents of Richmond, California were confronted with a series of frightening explosions from a nearby Chevron oil refinery. They were asked to stay indoors with all doors and windows closed. When the smoke clouds cleared (I could see them billowing upwards 18 miles away in San Francisco), dozens of people headed to the emergency room, complaining of shortness of breath, itchy eyes, burning throats, and more. It could have been a lot worse if the Chevron refinery had been processing material from Canada’s tar sands instead of conventional crude oil.
A new report from ForestEthics explores the community health hazards that come along with refineries processing toxic, corrosive bitumen blends (the stuff that comes out of Canada’s tar sands) to make synthetic oil. The main danger is that tar sands refineries emit significantly higher amounts of sulfur dioxide, which is linked to wheezing, chest tightness, overall reduced lung function, cardiovascular issues, and respiratory weakness. Sulfur dioxide is especially dangerous for people who have preexisting heart and lung conditions.
"If Chevron in Richmond had been using bitumen blends and that was the source of the fire, the surrounding communities would have suffered from sulfur pollution that would have been extremely hazardous to their health," says Aaron Sanger, the author of the ForestEthics report.
Explosions like the one at the Richmond Chevron refinery are more likely to happen at refineries that process bitumen blends because they are so corrosive. That’s bad news for the often poor communities that surround these refineries.
The map below shows all of the refineries in the U.S. that received bitumen blends or synthetic crude from the tar sands--but keep in mind that many of these refineries don’t actually process the stuff. They only buy it.