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A fortuitous interview adds crucial perspective to story on Bay Area’s refinery emissions cap

A fortuitous interview adds crucial perspective to story on Bay Area’s refinery emissions cap

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When I embarked on this reporting project, I knew that I was going to need to act fast.

For years, I had been following a battle in the Bay Area by environmentalists to keep new forms of crude oil from being shipped into the region by trains. As traditional oil sources in Alaska and off the coast of the U.S. dry up, Bay Area refineries are sourcing oil from new places, such as the Bakken and Tar Sands oil fields in the Midwestern U.S. and Canada. Some of these new types of crude oil are extremely volatile and when refined, release high levels of greenhouse gases and co-pollutants.

Environmental groups argue that bringing this oil to the Bay Area is a bad idea: it would be risky to transport it on train, along tracks that pass dangerously close to homes and schools, and it would harm the health of people that live near the refineries where it’s processed.

The environmental groups had been fighting these new forms of crude oil municipality by municipality, by petitioning local governments to ban the passage of these oil trains through their districts. The groups then turned their attention to a broader fight — getting the Bay Area to ban the processing of this crude oil across the region’s five oil refineries. Environmentalists petitioned the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, the district that regulates refineries, to place a cap on greenhouse gas emissions and co-pollutants from refineries. The activists hoped that this would not only directly limit the refineries’ ability to increase pollution, but it would, in effect, hamstring the refineries from importing these newer crude oils because it would be extremely difficult to refine them while staying under the cap.

If passed, the cap would be historic. It would be the first time in the country that a community has ever specifically limited greenhouse gases at local oil refineries. Currently in California, under the cap-and-trade program, industries can increase emissions in one location as long as they decrease them somewhere else. Some environmental groups see this program as flawed, since it allows for an increase in air pollution in certain communities even though overall the state is decreasing its carbon footprint. The proposed Bay Area refinery cap, then, would correct this problem by limiting emissions locally.

For my 2017 California Fellowship project, I wanted to look at how significant this proposed policy would be for the health of the residents near the refineries. But hooking my story to this development meant two things: it would mean I would need to rush to get a radio feature on the air before the policy was voted on, and it would mean that I’d need to explain a complicated policy issue on the radio.

I knew that in order to make a policy story work on the airwaves, I would need to find stories of the people whose lives it would affect –– and I would need to do it fast.

First, I reached out to the community groups and unions working on this issue and asked them to introduce me to people who would be affected ­­–– residents who lived close to the refineries and refinery workers. Enlisting the help of such groups can sometimes be the easiest way to find “characters” for stories. However, staff at these groups — especially grassroots community groups — are often extremely overworked and under-resourced and don’t always remember to return the calls of reporters, no matter how many phone messages you leave them.

My next tactic, then, was to just start showing up at the meetings of these groups. What I found, though, was that the people who are most active and in attendance at meetings aren’t always the ones being directly affected. I met a lot of people from nearby Berkeley and Oakland who, while eager to help and aware of the issue, didn’t live near or work at the refineries.

Luckily for me, the air district was hosting a series of public meetings to discuss the proposed refinery cap, with a different meeting scheduled in each refinery town. I decided to attend all the meetings in hopes of finding people in each community to interview. Because the policies being proposed were so contentious, community members and refinery workers showed up to these meetings in droves. 

As any radio reporter knows, government meetings don’t necessarily make for the best tape. Since I was already there though, I decided to record anyway. I plugged my recorder into the sound system and just left it running. That freed me up to take notes and run around and introduce myself. I listened closely to each public comment, and if I thought the person was a good talker and had a compelling story, I quietly and quickly went up and introduced myself as soon as they were done talking. (I had learned from attending city council meetings that people tend to leave after they’ve made their comments, so I knew I shouldn’t wait until the end of the meeting to introduce myself.) I got many people’s contact information and permission to schedule follow-up interviews.

It was in this way that I met Siengther Lathanasouk, a Richmond resident and Laotian immigrant who lives right next to the Chevron refinery and Jennifer Sundberg, a Benicia resident who lives upwind of the Valero refinery.

But the other person I really wanted to meet was someone who worked at the refinery. At the Richmond meeting, one such person stepped up to the microphone to give comment. Mike Miller introduced himself as a lifelong Richmond resident and an operator at the Phillip 66 refinery in the town of Rodeo. “This rule is only about limiting a refinery’s future ability to run a viable business,” he said. He was worried that if the emissions cap was passed, he’d be out of a job.  

I knew right away that this was the person I wanted to interview for my story. As soon as he finished talking, I watched him walk straight for the exit door. I had the good sense to rip my recording kit from the sound system and follow him. I caught him outside the building and interviewed him right there on the spot. Miller was born and raised near the refinery in Richmond and had worked at the Phillip 66 refinery for 26 years; his son worked there now, too. This man came from a family of refinery workers who saw the refineries as a source of well-paid, union jobs for the Bay Area. He was a great talker and unlike many people who work at the refineries and are hesitant or forbidden to go on the record, Miller was eager to talk to me. He told me he could even give me a tour of the refinery. We exchanged contact information and made plans to meet up a few days later, with him promising he’d call to confirm. I never heard from him again.

I called and e-mailed Miller repeatedly in the weeks leading up to my story. I thought scenes from a refinery itself would really help illustrate the complex policy being debated. But unfortunately, the other challenge in my project caught up with me: time. I had to finish my story before the public comment period closed, so that my reporting could hopefully inspire and inform participation.

In the end, the air district shelved the proposed emissions cap on refineries, since California’s recently extended cap-and-trade program prohibits air districts from reducing carbon emissions at sites that are already regulated under the law. 

I am so glad that I at least thought to grab my recording kit and get that interview with Miller on tape outside the meeting in Richmond. If I hadn’t recorded that conversation, I would have missed out on including an important perspective in my story. For radio journalism especially, it’s the personal stories that help make policies relatable, relevant, and listenable. I was glad that in the short amount of time I had to produce my feature, I was able to find some stories to bring the policy to life. 

Read Marissa Ortega-Welch's fellowship stories here.

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Want to improve your data journalism skills?  Apply now for the 2018 Data Fellowship -- four all-expenses-paid days of training on data acquisition, analysis and visualization, plus a $2,000-$4,000  reporting grant and six months of expert mentoring.  Dates:  October 17-20. Deadline: August 27 for California journalists, Sept. 7 for journalists from other states

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