On a wet, windy day, Cathy Ivers can smell it, the elusive tang of something sour clinging to the salt breezes of the eastern San Francisco Bay.
She knows where it comes from: the other side of town, the part straddled by steam-breathing ironclads of heavy industry that look like "you just came through Purgatory . . . through the gates of hell."
Living in a county where 837,000 people share the air with five oil refineries and several chemical plants, Ivers doesn't need the smell to remind her of heavy industry's presence.
But after two toxic scares in one week, she worries more than ever that catastrophe is as close as her back yard, that "we're always one spill or one event away from a disaster."
State and company records give an industrial snapshot of Contra Costa County.
* Forty-four companies reported toxic air releases of 3.2 million pounds in 1990, including 1 million pounds of ammonia. Also reported were several hydrocarbons, which contribute to ground-level smog, and the carcinogen benzene.
* Plant inventories included 81 million pounds of toluene, 60 million pounds of xylene, both hydrocarbons, and 33 million pounds of sulfuric acid, a corrosive.
* Acutely hazardous materials handled at the plants include ammonia, chlorine and hydrogen sulfide, corrosives that can cause respiratory distress and suffocation in high concentrations.
What it means is a county that is second only to Los Angeles in industrialization, said Elaine Wilson, a county hazardous materials expert.
Concerns soared in June after a chemical spill at the Rhone-Poulenc Basic Chemicals Co. in Martinez triggered a series of fires and a column of black smoke, closing highways and businesses. One worker was killed, another suffered acid burns over half of his body.
The next day, a broken pump at the Chevron Refinery in Richmond, about 15 miles away, sent an oily plume into the air, forcing residents inside in the fourth community alert since October.
Despite the scares, industry officials say their heavily regulated facilities aren't a risk.
"We make every effort to be the very best neighbor we can be and of course the safest," Shell Oil Co. spokeswoman Diane Kalas said.
"I'm not concerned that my company, the Dow Chemical Co., poses any danger to suburbia," environmental manager Scott Anderson said.
State environmental agencies also say that health risks posed by the plants are barely measurable. Air quality in the county is usually good to moderate, said Lucia Libretti of the Bay Area Air Quality Management District.
As for odors, they may be rank but smelly doesn't necessarily mean toxic, she said.
Still, experts are concerned about having acutely hazardous materials surrounded by housing.
"The current land-use pattern is not very smart. Residential and heavy industry uses are not compatible," said Steve Hill, manager of the regional air board's air toxics evaluation unit.
State required reports list several acutely hazardous materials being handled in the county, including ammonia, chlorine and other substances that can cause respiratory distress, possibly fatal in high concentrations.
"Basically any chemical company, no matter how responsible, may have an accident on occasion and if somebody's living right next door to them or a block down from them, it's just a problem," Wilson said.
Among the plants lining an industrial corridor extending from the inner shore of the San Francisco Bay to a series of straits and smaller bays leading to Sacramento are Chevron USA Inc., Unocal, Tosco Refining Co., Pacific Refining Co. and Du Pont.
On a clear night, the county shows its prosperous side as the lights of the refineries sparkle like rhinestones scattered on the shimmering waters of the bay.
But activists say the glow is deceiving.
"The potential for a major chemical disaster is there," said Denny Larson of Citizens for a Better Environment.
Plant opponents are fighting on two fronts this summer. Ivers and her group, Communities for a Safe Environment, are trying to stop Rhone-Poulenc from getting permission to burn hazardous waste.
In Pittsburg, a community group forced an extension of the public comment period on a Dow request to burn hazardous waste.
In their defense, industries point out that their presence is nothing new.
"They (the hazardous materials) have been here for a great number of years," said Rhone-Poulenc spokesman Sean Clancy.
Companies started moving to the water-convenient area at the turn of the century. People followed, with the area growing explosively after World War II, a time when "people thought the chemicals and these industries . . . were wonderful," Larson said.
Then, the industrial base of the community softened into suburbia with more offices and light industry.
Now, industries find themselves less welcome, although civic leaders point out that they employ tens of thousands of people.
"These facilities are still very important to the tax base and employment," said Chuck Zahn, assistant director of the county's Community Development Planning.
Industries say they are doing their best to adapt.
Dow bought 450 acres to use as a light industry or greenbelt buffer, Anderson said. Chevron spokesman Hal Holt said the Richmond refinery, which began production in 1902, moved heavy processing equipment deeper inside property lines to widen the buffer.
"Nobody's trying to do anything wrong because it costs everybody," he said.
As required by law, plants have filed maps of the kind of toxic clouds that could be caused by accident. But the reports said leaks were very unlikely, and some residents say they have grown accustomed to their industrial neighbors.
"It's a fact of life that we've had to learn to live with," said Barbara Masters of the county's health services department. "Our job here is to make sure they operate safely."
Activists agree that industries are complying more with safety standards, but said they fear those efforts could be undermined by recession-driven cutbacks.
But Dow's Anderson believes that suburbs and industry can reach a truce.
"Industry has to be open, industry has to be aboveboard," he said. "We're not asking you to trust us any more. All we're asking you to do is to work with us."
Contra Costa County Emissions
Here is a look at heavy industry in Contra Costa County and what they reported to the state for 1990. Complaints, which include confirmed and unconfirmed cases, and citations are from Bay Area Air Quality Management Board for the period January 1990 through June 1992. The high complaint to citation ratio may be because some incidents generate multiple complaints.
Total Emissions Reported Air: 3,178,695 pounds Water: 110,548 pounds Land (on-site): 126,005 pounds Sewer (public): 191,024 pounds Off-site: 675,338 pounds Total: 4,281,610 pounds
Plants and Their 1990 Emissions Tosco Refining Co. oil refinery Total: 772,477 pounds Top three substances: 517,800 pounds ammonia, 133,000 pounds propylene, 29,900 pounds ethylene Complaints: 866 Citations: 7 Chevron USA Inc., Richmond, oil refinery Total: 227,887 pounds Top three substances: 46,300 pounds toluene, 33,900 pounds methyl ethyl ketone, 21,900 pounds benzene Complaints: 311 Citations: 8 Shell Oil Co., oil refinery Total: 168,292 pounds Top three substances: 37,977 pounds xylene, 31,146 pounds toluene, 24,564 pounds ethylene Complaints: 472 Citations: 12 Unocal-San Francisco Refinery oil refinery Total: 151,665 pounds Top three substances: 75,900 pounds ammonia, 16,750 pounds xylene, 16,250 pounds phenol Complaints: 205 Citations: 6 Pacific Refining Co., oil refinery Total: 60,997 pounds Top three substances: 18,655 pounds toluene, 9,416 pounds m-xylene, 5,995 pounds p-xylene Complaints: 1,141 Citations: 23 DuPont, Antioch chemical processing plant Total: 409,950 pounds Top three substances: 305,000 pounds carbonyl sulfide, 73,000 pounds chlorinated fluorocarbon, 24,400 pounds hydrochloric acid Dow Chemical U.S.A. chemical processing plant Total: 226,876 pounds Top three substances: 122,000 pounds tetrachloroethylene, 47,000 pounds carbon tetrachloride, 30,000 pounds methylene chloride Rhone-Poulenc Basic Chemicals Co. chemical processing plant Total: 6,573 pounds Top three substances: 4,160 pounds ammonium sulfate, 1,673 pounds ammonia, 740 pounds sulfuric acid Complaints: 20 Citations: 1
Acutely Hazardous Materials On-Site
Ammonia: can irritate the nose, eyes, throat and lungs and in high concentrations cause suffocation and death.
Chlorine: exposure to low concentrations can cause stinging in the eyes, nose, throat and headaches. In high concentrations can cause respiratory distress, coughing and suffocation.
Hydrogen sulfide: low exposure levels can cause headaches and dizziness, high exposure levels can cause suffocation. Ignites easily.
Oleum/Sulfur Trioxide: overexposure can irritate nose, throat and lungs and cause difficulty breathing, long-term overexposure can cause chronic irritation.
Titanium Tetrachloride: fumes strongly when exposed to moist air, forming dense and persistent cloud of hydrogen chloride, a corrosive that can cause burns, blindness, bleeding and, in high concentrations, may result in suffocation.
Hydrogen Fluoride: can cause severe irritation to the eyes and skin, inhalation may damage upper respiratory tract and lungs, possibly fatal. Liver and kidney damage also may result.
Sulfur Dioxide: contact with eyes may cause irritation, extremely high exposures may cause respiratory paralysis, inflammation of the lungs and death.