Herring Fishermen Sue Chevron Over California Oil Leak

A group of fishermen seek punitive damages and funding to monitor the health of Pacific herring after an oil spill leaked 700 gallons of oil into a prime fish spawning habitat.

The Chevron refinery in Richmond, California, processes about 240,000 barrels of oil daily. (Photo from complaint filed by San Francisco Herring Association)

(CN) — A pipeline rupture that gushed hundreds of gallons of oil into the San Francisco Bay spurred a class action filed Tuesday that accuses a Chevron refinery of prioritizing profits over safety and threatening the survival of herring in the area for years to come.

“We have been working for years to preserve and protect the herring that spawn in the Bay,” said plaintiff John Mellor, a longtime fisherman and vice president of the San Francisco Herring Association. “You dedicate your life and career to something like that, and then an oil company that sits on the water goes and reverses your work to save a buck. It’s more than a little frustrating.”

On Feb. 9, a Chevron refinery in the East Bay city of Richmond, California, discovered a pipeline leak that oozed about 700 gallons of a substance described interchangeably by Chevron as “a mixture of recovered oil and gasoline”, “petroleum and water mixture” and “hydrocarbons.”

According to the lawsuit filed by the San Francisco Herring Association and two fishermen associated with the group, Chevron had no booms or oil-spill containing equipment in place prior to the leak. Chevron allegedly dragged its feet in responding to the spill and when it finally acted, it “sadly” corralled oil into some of the Bay’s “prime herring spawning habitat.”

“Not only did Chevron’s fumbled mitigation and clean-up attempt fail to prevent the spread of the spill, that attempt actually served to concentrate the petroleum product in the place where it would do the most possible harm to the local herring population,” the 27-page complaint states.

Opened in 1902, the Chevron refinery occupies 2,900 acres along the shore in Richmond, a city of 110,000 that became the site of a mass shipbuilding effort during World War II. The refinery processes about 240,000 barrels of oil daily, and it earned $1.3 billion in profit in the fourth quarter of 2017 alone, according to the lawsuit.

The fishermen’s attorney, Stuart Gross of Gross & Klein in San Francisco, said in a statement Tuesday that Chevron “cuts corners to add a little more to its billion-dollar bottom line, externalizing the costs of its conduct onto the environment and those that depend on it. This lawsuit seeks to reverse that equation.”

Critics argue that Chevron has a long history of environmental problems, including explosions and fires in 1989 and 1999 that “spewed pollutants” into the air and water and hospitalized hundreds of Richmond residents. In 2012, a fire sparked by a diesel line leak required more than 1,500 people to seek medical care. Fires also erupted at the site in 2014 and 2016 and more than 30 “flare ups,” in which excess gas is burned releasing carbon emissions into the air, occurred at the refinery in 2019, according to the lawsuit.

Last week, the executive director of the environmental nonprofit San Francisco Baykeeper called the refinery’s response to the oil spill “pathetic,” arguing Chevron should have been better prepared to deal with an oil spill given its “long history of environmental violations.” 

Oil products contain toxic compounds such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons that can damage genetic information within a cell and cause mutations. Exposure to those compounds has been linked to high rates of death for herring eggs and larvae, according to the lawsuit.

The fishermen say the spill occurred in some of Bay’s best herring spawning habitat, where a spawn was observed a few weeks before the accident.

“A vast majority of any herring eggs will be killed off before they are even given a chance to hatch. Likewise, the larvae and juvenile fish in the area are practically certain to die,” the fishermen claim in their lawsuit.

A $4.2 million settlement reached in 2018 with Pacific Gas and Electric over pollution from 19th century gas plants included projects to restore seagrass and remove creosote-treated wood pilings that can leach toxic chemicals into the water. Both restoration projects occurred in an area close to the oil spill, according to co-plaintiff and San Francisco Herring Association President Matt Ryan.

“The point of all this work is to improve the overall health of the Bay’s herring stock, not to create herring habitat for Chevron to destroy,” Ryan said in a statement Tuesday.

The herring fishermen accuse Chevron of negligence, public nuisance and violating California’s Lempert-Keene-Seastrand Oil Spill Prevention and Response Act.

They seek economic and punitive damages along with a fund to monitor the San Francisco Bay’s herring population and habitat to ensure “the short and long term health and viability” of the herring stock and fishery.

A Chevron spokesperson declined to comment on the lawsuit Tuesday, but Chevron Fire Chief Greg Bosworth thanked crews “who responded safely and expertly to bring this spill quickly under control and clean it up” in a statement last week.

“We will learn from our investigation of this incident and continue to focus on safe and reliable operations,” Bosworth said.

The lawsuit was filed in Contra Costa County Superior Court.

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