Before the explosion last week at Texaco's Wilmington refinery, organizers for Labor/Community Watchdog, a local environmental group had spent 18 fruitless months knocking on doors, warning of the toxins emitted by Texaco and other refineries nearby.
People listened politely. Some even promised to attend Watchdog meetings--but virtually no one did.
That ambivalence has changed dramatically in the wake of last Thursday night's explosion, which shattered windows, frightened children--and prompted the evacuation of residents one-mile west and south of the plant.
When Watchdog organizers called a meeting Tuesday night, more than 200 people showed up. Asked who has suffered from headaches, nausea and other health problems since the blast, most of the crowd raised their hands.
"Who has? You mean, who hasn't," one man yelled.
Wilmington can be a tough place to live--the unemployment plaguing the rest of the state is crushing there; crime and drugs are on the streets, young Latinos and African Americans are fighting each other more and more. Few have time to worry about an invisible, painless threat.
But Tuesday's Labor/Community Watchdog meeting illustrated that--at least in the short term--refinery accidents and emissions are uppermost in residents' minds.
During the gathering, at the Wilmington Senior Center, Lori Johnson of Wilmington stood up at one point and noted that the headaches experienced by some after the refinery explosion were nothing new to many of those who live near the plant.
"It's just finally clicked that (the refinery) is the cause of it all," Johnson said.
Jorge R. Mancillas, a biologist with the UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles, told the group not to believe Texaco's assertions that no harm will result from the emissions released during the explosion.
Speaking in English and then in Spanish, Mancillas urged the people to fill out health questionnaires prepared by Labor/Community Watchdog, telling them they might need documentation of their illnesses in the future.
"I hope I'm wrong, but there is the risk that there could be long-term harm done to the nervous system if things are not checked out now," Mancillas said.
Texaco spokesman Fred Schlicher said Wednesday that the oil company has been monitoring air quality at the plant since the explosion and has found no dangerous levels of emissions.
A team of inspectors from Texaco, the Oil, Chemical and Atomic International Workers Union and the state Occupational Safety and Health Administration is still investigating the cause of the explosion, Schlicher said.
Watchdog organizers, speaking in English and translating in Spanish for the predominantly Latino crowd Tuesday night, urged the group to stay angry and not let their involvement be limited to one meeting.
"Sometimes you come out to a meeting because you're angry, and then by the time you get home you forget what made you go out," said Eric Mann, executive director of the Labor/Community Strategy Center.
Endorsing their decisions with a resounding "Si!" residents at the Watchdog meeting Tuesday agreed to ask Texaco to meet with them next week in a forum in which they would present a list of demands.
Among other demands, the group plans to call on Texaco to designate certain clinics where people can receive treatment for health complaints caused by last week's explosion--and to send doctors to the homes of people who cannot travel to a clinic.
Under an arrangement proposed by Texaco, residents would pay a doctor upfront and submit the bill to the oil company.
The group also wants Texaco to disclose which toxins were released during the explosion, to furnish a history of accidents at the plant and to give a community-designated inspector unlimited access to the refinery.
Texaco officials declined to comment on the Watchdog group's forthcoming demands. But in the past few days, they have been moving to quell community fears about the blast, visiting area schools to talk to children. Tonight at 7, a Texaco representative is scheduled to meet with the Wilmington Homeowners' Assn. at the Banning Park Recreation Center, 1331 Eubank Ave.
"We're doing our utmost to address every concern out there," Schlicher said.