PROFITS VS. THE PLANET: Big Oil’s Killing Fields

By ROLAND SHEPPARD

We reported last month on the Feb. 23 disaster at the Tosco Avon Refinery in Martinez, Calif., in which four oil workers were killed in a ball of fire due to company neglect. Following the blast, and under pressure from environmental groups, Tosco agreed to shut down the refinery.

Immediately after the shutdown, the San Francisco Bay Area TV, radio and press announced that gasoline prices were going to rise in the Bay Area because the Tosco closing would cause a significant decline in production. This boost in what were already the highest gasoline prices in the nation was made despite the fact that there are many other refineries in the Bay Area.

The big business media has neglected to point out, however, that Tosco revealed plans to shut down the refinery well before the latest disaster. The Dec. 1, 1998, New York Times, under the headline “Tosco to Close Refinery Units,” reported:

“The Tosco Corporation said today that it would close units at a San Francisco-area refinery, cut an unspecified number of jobs and take a $40 million pretax charge against fourth-quarter earnings to cover the reorganization cost….

“The units will be shut down at the 160,000-barrel-a-day Avon refinery, one of three in Northern California that are part of Tosco’s San Francisco Area refinery complex. Tosco said it was integrating the operations of the three refineries and increasing production of less polluting gasoline for the California market.”

This earlier statement by Tosco refutes the current propaganda that lack of production capacity has driven up gasoline costs. It also demonstrates how the oil companies, acting as a monopoly, can use their alleged concern for the environment to justify ripping us off.

At the same time, Tosco’s statement was an implied threat that if we force the oil monopoly to be safer they will charge us for it.

From Tosco’s point of view they had no need to replace or repair faulty valves and other equipment-a factor that led to the death of the four workers-since the plant would soon be closed.

It appears that Tosco will further profit from these deaths (corporate murders) by avoiding the severance pay liabilities they would have to pay if they had closed the refinery down on their own initiative. They are even backing down on their initial claims to pay the workers while they shut the plant down.

These actions by the oil companies demonstrate what is wrong with capitalism and the profit motive.

These companies are among the richest in the world, yet they are constantly working to increase profits. Since the beginning of the 1980s, they have cut back the workforce and forced workers to work longer hours at the expense of health and safety.

Refinery accidents have been increasing at an alarming rate in Contra Costa County, where Tosco is located.

In July 1997, KPIX, a local television station reported: “A new study released on Tuesday may leave East Bay residents who live near refineries a bit unsettled. The study shows the rate of major toxic accidents in Contra Costa County has nearly doubled in the last year, averaging one accident every five weeks. The study also revealed that major refinery accidents have killed 24 people and caused hundreds of illnesses and injuries over the past eight years.”

These increases in accidents will only add to the high cancer rates and other diseases (childhood leukemia) associated with oil refineries.

Basically, these refineries are killing fields. Death and pestilence are factored into production the same as casualties of war are factored into military battles.

The fight for a safe workplace and a safe environment is a struggle for human rights. The rights of these workers and the community to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness should have top priority over the oil companies’ rights to produce profits and pollution.

These polluters (corporate looters) should be taxed 100 percent until they stop polluting workers inside and outside the refineries! The fines should be used to clean up the environment and to pay the workers for any lost time.

Chevron Refinery Explodes

On March 25, disaster came again to Contra Costa County. Part of the Chevron refinery in Richmond, Calif., exploded, sending a black cloud over the neighborhood. Nearby hospitals reported that hundreds of people came in with breathing problems.

The next day, Henry Clark of the West County Toxics Coalition told a San Francisco Socialist Action forum: “We are in a state of environmental emergency in Contra Costa County.

“Management [of the oil companies] endangers the lives of workers and the community in its mad rush for profits.”