Andrés Soto, Community Organizer and Activist
As the Pittsburg, CA, City Council debated the merits of a new rail spur to deliver crude oil in 2015—one of many U.S. cities that have been confronted with such projects in the wake of vast deposits found in North Dakota oil fields—the meetings grew loud and contentious. Some viewed the crude trains as a source of major income and jobs. Many more opposed a facility that would bring a 100-car train loaded with highly volatile oil through town each day.
In the audience most nights was Andrés Soto who often spoke at the dais, reminding officials that it was their duty to protect residents from the inherent dangers associated with transporting oil by rail. In December, WesPac, the company behind the project, withdrew its application, citing both a decline in oil prices and fierce local opposition.
“If we don’t fight back, they win by default,” said Soto, 61, who works as a community organizer with Communities for a better Environment (CBE) based in Richmond, CA. “People at the top will only change when they get pressure from those on the bottom.”
Neighboring Contra Costa and Solano counties have five refineries between them, an area sometimes referred to as the petrochemical belt of the San Francisco Bay Area. In Richmond, asthma rates are 17 percent, more than double the national average. CBE scored a big victory when it and other environmental groups sued Richmond for granting Chevron a permit to begin an extensive modernization project of its refinery in the city without properly disclosing that the project could increase air pollution. The legal battle forced Chevron to revamp the project with no net increase of greenhouse gas emissions and new equipment that is not vulnerable to corrosion.
Soto grew up in nearby San , raised on a steady diet of politics and grassroots activism. As a young man, he picketed grocery stores on behalf of the United Farm Workers during their famous grape boycott aimed at improving work and pay conditions for agricultural workers. “I’ve been walking precincts since I was 10 years old,” said Soto.Upon graduating from UC Berkeley, Soto went to work for the city of Richmond, where he has worked in many social justice arenas through the years. Today, he is channeling his energy into pushing the Bay Area Air Quality Management District to impose caps on refinery emissions. “We can say greenhouse gas emissions have been going up for the past 20 years and that’s a threat to the climate,” Soto said. “But along with those is the pollution that people are breathing in because they live near refineries. And unless we reduce these emissions, these health risks will continue in the community unabated.”
Excerpted from “Richmond Environmental Activist Takes on Big Oil”
East Bay Times, August 12, 2016