Remembering the 2012 Richmond Refinery Fire

Seven years ago this month, in August 2012, a massive fire at the Chevron refinery in Richmond covered the city in toxic smoke and sent 15,000 local residents to the hospital. APEN’s Political Director, Laiseng Saechao, was near the refinery when the explosion happened. This is her story.

It was a sad day. Chimes and gongs of Mien instruments rang throughout the neighborhood, children ran from the backyard to the garden at all hours of the day, and all of the women crowded together in embroidered aprons cooking lai and awh sen. This is how we came together, in life, in love, and in death.

Mien funeral ceremonies in Richmond

My grandfather who was a religious leader, a chaman, had just passed away that week from a stroke. It is our Mien tradition to have three days and three nights of ceremonies to help our loved ones pass on to the afterlife. The altars were decorated with gold paper and a bowl of raw rice with incense burned slowly. The house was filled with faces I remembered, and faces I had forgotten. I used my broken Mien to say that I was the granddaughter, and to say my thank you’s to each person who came to help cook and clean.

I opened the blinds to the living room window and noticed a thick black smoke. Smoke from distant wildfires had become common in our community, and I wondered how close the fire must be to envelope the sky in that way. It wasn’t until someone started yelling to close the windows and doors quickly that I realized it may have been something else. Every single person who was attending my grandfather’s ceremony crowded around the small boxy television and watched the news: a fire had broken out in the Chevron refinery. The black plumes were filled with toxic chemicals and my grandparents’ house was just a short distance away.

Laiseng and her parents, growing up in Richmond

This was all too familiar for me. I was used to the alarms reverberating through Richmond calling for an emergency. I was used to seeing the big tanks of oil on my drive to school each day. This was normal for everyone who lived in Richmond.

Just one year later, I was reading about an environmental justice case study in a college class and learning about how Laotian community members had come together to fight refineries in Richmond, California. I would never have expected to see the words Laotian or Richmond in my readings. I felt oddly seen, and I knew I had to be a part of this.

On my first day of summer, I showed up to APEN’s doors and started as an intern. I learned about pollution and its impacts on my loved ones, but also about the power of communities who fight back for equity. I giggled with Mien elders who told jokes in our language, and chanted songs through a microphone at climate marches. I smelled sage from blessings of indigenous leaders, and knocked on doors of community members.

Laiseng with APEN staff and leaders as an intern in 2013 (second from left)

On August 6, 2013 we memorialized the one-year anniversary of the Chevron refinery explosion. My vivid memories of the thick black smoke devouring the sky over all of my family and loved ones reminded me that this was not the future I wanted for them. That is why I fight for environmental justice: for them, for those whose doors I knocked on, for those who stood by me at climate rallies, for my community.

-by Laiseng Saechao

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