On Monday, August 6, 2012, Chevron’s refinery in Richmond, California erupted in flames, spewing thick black smoke that included a mixture of hydrocarbons, heavy metals, and combustion products high into the atmosphere. A shelter in place order was issued and several hundred people experienced enough pain and discomfort from exposure to the smoke to seek medical attention. The fire was described as “fully contained” on Tuesday, but it was not extinguished until late Wednesday afternoon, after continuously dumping its toxic smoke into the surrounding environment for approximately 48 hours.
Here is one of the very few video clips that I could find on line.
As you can see from the clips, this fire is quite photogenic, with dramatic flames and dense smoke that can be seen for miles around. There are outraged citizens who have been physically harmed and whose property has been contaminated with unknown quantities of material known to cause cancer. Some of that material lasts forever; it does not get less toxic because of natural processes like radioactive decay.
I’m not much of a television news fan, so I am not able to report to you whether or not there has been any coverage of this event in anything other than local media outlets. My web searches were not successful in finding anything on the major networks, but I will grant that I might have missed it.
It will be enlightening to pay close attention to the way that the news media covers this story over time and then to compare that coverage to the way that the media covered a far less consequential and photogenic event at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station located just a few hundred miles south in the same state.
On January 31, 2012 a single tube – out of tens of thousands of tubes in one of four large steam generators – failed and leaked a small quantity of nearly pure water into another volume of nearly pure water that was at a low enough pressure to allow boiling.
The water that leaked contained a very small quantity of radioactive material. When I contacted a public relations person at Southern California Edison (SCE) they were not able to tell me exactly how much radioactive material leaked, but they were able to tell me that the most exposed person received a radiation dose of 5.2E-5 millirem. Let me try to write that number in another way:
(Note: I would love a proofreading to make sure that I got the zeros correct.)
That number is one BILLION times lower than the annual limit I used to have as an occupational radiation worker on a submarine. That limit was already 2 times lower than the dose where the Health Physics Society “risks of health effects are either too small to be observed or are nonexistent”.
I don’t want to rehash all of the stories that have been published about the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station since that tube leak was detected; suffice it to say that the plant remains shut down and there are numerous calls for it to remain shutdown forever. It is simple to find hundreds of stories about the events with intricate details about the cause of the initial failure. Many public hearings have been held and televised.
There are many people who will dismiss the difference in coverage that will inevitably occur between a very consequential refinery conflagration and a nuclear power plant tube leak as being caused because the media is biased against nuclear or because the media’s audience has such a deep fear of nuclear that it will keep tuning in or reading stories that stoke that fear.
I look at it differently. My questions are what caused the fear and what enables the media to be able to cover a dramatic petroleum related event factually and then move quickly on to other topics, while it will collectively remain focused on minor nuclear events for months at a time.
It is possible that the difference is caused by the routine nature of petroleum related accidents and by the close familiarity we all have with the negative health effects of breathing smoke. Since those things are so familiar and nuclear news is so unfamiliar, perhaps one is news and one is boring.
However, I believe it is much more likely that the difference in media coverage stems from the fact that the media’s business model is to sell advertising. The product that they sell is their audience, but the people who pay the bills are the corporations that want to describe their products and services in the most attractive way to that audience. I believe that even without any formal or explicit communication, any editor that wants to retain his job at an ad-supported media company will avoid focusing too much negative attention on a major advertiser.
As someone who has been paying close attention to commercials ever since given an assignment in a class called Rhetoric in high school (thanks, Ms. Page), I can testify that petroleum companies buy one heck of a lot of ads in every type of media imaginable. In contrast, the nuclear and utility industries almost never buy ads. It is no surprise which one ends up as fodder for media hyperbole and focused attention.
I want to give some credit to Democracy Now, which aired the below coverage titled Chevron Oil Refinery Fire in Richmond, California Forces Over 900 Residents to Hospitals. Democracy Now is not an advertiser supported media outlet. It will run stories that paint almost any major corporation in a negative light; its producers and talking heads have an especially strong dislike of nuclear energy. Someday, perhaps they will figure out that the only real way to reduce dependence on the products that come out of refineries is to use more nuclear energy.
AP (August 8, 2012)a href=”http://abcnews.go.com/US/wireStory/residents-refinery-fire-heckle-chevron-execs-16953985#.UCOHO8hSTEM”>Refinery Fire Highlights Pollution Concerns
Contra Costa Times (August 8, 2012) Questions raised about Chevron’s handling of gas leak that sparked massive blaze
Examiner (August 8, 2012) Chevron avoids refinery safety accountability with jigsaw puzzle of agencies
Global Post (August 8, 2012) Chevron refinery, one of the largest in California, catches fire (VIDEO)
WBTV (August 6, 2012) Experts: Calif refinery fire will boost gas prices