With major input from Benicia and area activists and experts, Air Watch Bay Area is now up and running…
[Contact listing at end]
Air Watch Bay Area launches new digital platform for reporting and investigating oil refinery pollution
Staying informed about what’s in the air is a priority for Bay Area residents living near the region’s five oil refineries. As we mark the five-year anniversary of the Chevron Richmond refinery fire, a new suite of digital tools designed to reveal and act on air pollution is now live at: http://airwatchbayarea.org/. The Air Watch Bay Area website and reporting app (available for Android or iOS) build on and extend residents’ successful activism for real-time air monitoring for many of the region’s frontline communities (Richmond, Rodeo, Crockett and Benicia). The website and app enable users to:
- Report air pollution — rate smells, upload photos, and describe symptoms;
- See pollution reports in context, alongside chemical levels, wind direction, and reports from other community members;
- View the history of chemical levels measured by fenceline and community monitors;
- Contribute to an independent community database of incidents, while also submitting reports to regulatory authorities at the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD);
- Connect with community organizations and resources to advocate for cleaner air, particularly in frontline communities;
- Grow the community of people engaged with Bay Area air quality and environmental justice advocacy.
Frontline community residents, in collaboration with the Fair Tech Collective at Drexel University and the Community Robotics, Education, and Technology Empowerment Lab (CREATE Lab) at Carnegie Mellon University, helped to develop these tools — to build capacity for broadened civic engagement with air quality. “Air Watch Bay Area builds on a community of people who are dedicated to refinery air quality vigilance and for the first time shows the Big Picture of all the refineries in the Bay Area,” according to Constance Beutel of the Benicia Good Neighbor Steering Committee.
Exposing oil refineries to public scrutiny
In a region where many are committed to environmental sustainability and health, local oil refineries too often operate beyond public scrutiny. Air Watch Bay Area helps expose refineries to scrutiny by highlighting air pollution data across frontline communities in Richmond, Crockett, Rodeo, and Benicia. As fenceline monitoring requirements recently adopted by BAAQMD come into force, the site will expand to include data from Martinez, where neither Shell nor Tesoro currently have fenceline monitoring programs, as well as additional data from other communities.
Air Watch Bay Area features residents’ own pollution reports alongside both historical and real-time air quality data, made available through successful environmental justice advocacy. The site is the first to present such archival air quality data, which are necessary to help residents “connect the dots” between chemical levels in ambient air and health issues that may not appear until hours or days after exposure. Residents from all refinery communities can make pollution reports, adding to available air pollution data even where monitoring is not being conducted.
Holding regulators & public officials accountable to public health, environmental justice
Ultimately, Air Watch Bay Area’s digital tools offer Bay Area residents new levers for holding regulators and elected officials accountable to public health, environmental justice, and sustainability. “Often when citizens file air pollution complaints, the information seems to drop into a black hole. The ability for fenceline communities to archive their complaints is key to holding refineries and regulatory agencies accountable,” stated Nancy Rieser of Crockett-Rodeo United to Defend the Environment (C.R.U.D.E.).
When people report odors or photos to Air Watch Bay Area, they contribute to a publicly visible “paper trail” of incidents. This public paper trail, alongside individuals’ direct reports to BAAQMD, helps Bay Area residents advocate for cleaner air. It helps foster community empowerment and ownership of data, to address persistent air quality problems. “This site will be an important tool for anyone researching and evaluating refinery emissions that endanger health in our community,” said Rieser.
New data stories: Giving monitoring “teeth”
“Air monitoring has become a popular answer to the environmental health concerns of frontline communities. Just look at the state of California’s recent move to increase community air monitoring while undercutting environmental justice groups’ calls for caps on refinery emissions [in AB 617 and 398],” says Dr. Gwen Ottinger, Drexel University professor and principal investigator on the National Science Foundation grant that funded the creation of Air Watch Bay Area. “The problem with that approach is that monitoring in isolation is toothless.”
For monitoring to really have an impact, communities need to be able to leverage air quality data while challenging “upstream” causes of emissions. According to East Bay resident Cheryl Holzmeyer, a research and outreach associate of the Air Watch Bay Area project, “It’s crucial that air monitoring go hand-in-hand with efforts to cap emissions and prevent the refining of tar sands and heavy crude oil at Bay Area refineries. Decision-makers need to embrace new data stories — bridging people’s lived experiences of health and illness, refinery emissions levels, oil feedstock quality, and alternative visions of just transitions away from fossil fuel dependency.” By making historical data accessible and bringing people’s experiences into the picture through online pollution reporting, Air Watch Bay Area’s digital tools offer new ways to contribute to such stories.
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Constance Beutel (Benicia Good Neighbor Steering Committee) 707-742-4419
Kathy Kerridge (Benicia Good Neighbor Steering Committee) 707-816-2401
Nancy Rieser, Crockett-Rodeo United to Defend the Environment (C.R.U.D.E.) 510-322-1459
Jay Gunkelman (Vallejo) 707-654-8899
Cheryl Holzmeyer, Fair Tech Collective, Drexel University 510-417-9348
Gwen Ottinger, Fair Tech Collective, Drexel University 610-608-2146