A healthy lifestyle in a toxic environment: The Laotian community of Richmond, CA in the late 90s and early 2000s
By Luis Alfredo Chiang
Back in the early 1980s, a Laotian family moved to a house in Richmond, California. This family liked to plant their own fruits and vegetables for their own consumption. Laotians families like to do this, so they were practicing what their community usually does. This would have been considered a very healthy practice under normal circumstances. However, there was one problem: the land they were using was polluted. Even worse, they did not know about the contamination in the area.
Unfortunately, this kind of situation is not uncommon for the communities that live around Richmond, California. Most of the residents of the city are part of minorities, and the area around it is and has been known to be a very poor and contaminated area. Many factories and facilities have been built in the city and its vicinity, which all contribute to the contamination of the area, and the community is negatively affected by it. As mentioned, the city is very poor, so the education in the area is not the best compared to other places.
This paper argues that the Richmond Laotian community was especially affected by the environmental issues around their area because they relied on the environment in ways that made them more vulnerable to the pollution (namely farming and fishing), and the authorities did not help them much by not taking into consideration their cultural differences. When the authorities were formulating the regulations to reduce the exposure to contaminants, they should have taken into consideration how much Laotians like to fish and farm. Such was the ignorance from their part, that the community had to take the responsibility of educating everyone about the pollution, what they could do to make it better and how to protect themselves against it. It is important that we understand the answer to the questions mentioned above so we can validate whether it is essential for authorities to take the different cultures of its communities into account when formulating regulations, solutions and protection plans against environmental issues.
I acknowledge that several other researchers have mentioned that the Richmond Laotian community was affected by pollution when they consumed their fish from the Bay Area and ingested the vegetables grown nearby. However, this paper differs from those in that it focuses more on how their culture and practices aggravated their condition, which was already unfavorable.
This paper will talk about the current situation of the Richmond Laotian community and how it came to be like that. Then it will talk about farming and fishing in the community, and how the pollution and contaminants have been able to affect the community through farming and fishing, by giving examples of each of these cases. After that, this paper will mention how the authorities have been handling the situation, especially how they are not being a big help to the community when it comes to resolving the environmental issues and educating the community. This includes unreadable warning signs, untranslated warning signs, the lack of warning signs in some situations, and lack of quick response to the issues. Lastly, this paper will discuss what the community is doing in terms of educating the people about the issues.
Richmond’s Laotian Community
During the 1970s there was a big influx of Laotians in the United States, consequence of the Vietnam War. The United States recruited various foreign troops to fight along with them in the war, and among those groups were the Laotians. Because of the war, various bombs were dropped on Laos, destroying and/or polluting various agricultural resources the Laotians used. Among those resources were land, forests and water. This pushed the Laotians to seek shelter somewhere else, where they could have access to those resources.
Of those Laotians who decided to move to the United States, one third live in poverty. Only one third of the Laotian refugees had not reached fifth grade, and another third of them had barely graduated high school. Many Southeast Asians come from agrarian backgrounds with lower educational levels. This is all to say that overall, the community lives in poor economic and educational conditions.3
As if that was not enough, the Laotian community of Richmond, California has to also live with the pollution and contamination that the area is known for. There are over 350 toxic facilities in the area, including the Chevron Oil Refinery, which is one of the biggest (if not the biggest) contributors to pollution in the state. That facility alone contributes, per year, around 29 billion pounds of toxic air and water pollutants. As Aiko Pandorf says in his article called Richmond’s Laotians: Putting a Community on the Map, “according to a 1989 report by Communities for a Better Environment, at least 210 different hazardous chemicals are stored and/or released into the Richmond environment”.
As we all know, this is a situation that is shared by many communities that are mainly composed by minorities. Laotians are not the only community living in the city in question. There are also African American, as well as Hispanic residents in the area.
If you want to know more about the Richmond Laotian community, you can watch my video essay about it:
Laotian Gardening and Fishing
Now that we know a bit more about the community and its environment, we can talk about the main topic of this paper: how the Richmond Laotian community is affected by the pollution.
As mentioned before, the Laotian families (especially the women) like to plant their own fruits and vegetables, so they can consume those themselves after harvesting. Usually, we would hear this and see it as a healthy and admirable practice. However, much of the soil in Richmond, California is polluted, and makes this practice not as healthy as it otherwise would be. The pollution is able to “leak” into the crops, negatively affecting the health of the consumer.
As an example, take the family discussed in the introduction. The family had been growing and consuming their own crops for some time, not knowing the previous owner of the land was a scrap metal company called Drew Sales, and they had polluted the land before they left. The nature of Drew Sales’ work led them to pollute the land with heavy metals such as copper, lead, nickel and zinc. Once the family found out about the pollution, they found the vegetables had high levels of contaminants in them. This kind of pollution does not only apply to Drew Sales’ former land. Gloria Chaleunsy, a Richmond resident, said “We were told not to plant food in our backyards because the soil was lined with lead and mercury.”
According to Sabine Martin and Wendy Griswold, exposure to heavy metals in large amounts can be dangerous. For example, “exposure to high lead levels can severely damage the brain and kidneys and ultimately cause death”. Lead was one of the heavy metals found in the family’s crops, and we can see how consuming them could have exposed the family to extremely concerning health risks.
Similar to what happened with Drew Sales in their former land is the case of United Heckathorn and Richmond’s Harbor Channel. United Heckathorn was a pesticide formulator that operated from 1947 to 1966. During these years, the company released various pesticides, like dieldrin and DDT. This contaminated the site and all the creatures that lived in it.1
DDT is a human carcinogenic substance that has long lasting effects on the environment, meaning it will stay present wherever it is for a long time. A carcinogenic substance is one that can cause cancer to anyone in contact with it. What was most concerning about the situation was that the levels of DDT at this location were higher than anywhere else in the United States. However, the Laotians of the area and minorities from neighboring towns had been using that harbor to fish and provide food. That means all of those people were unknowingly exposing themselves to DDT and consuming it.1
The reason why fishing was so prominent in Richmond, California is that the level of poverty pushes the residents to fish, so they can provide food for their families. This goes a step beyond for the Laotian community specifically. As we have mentioned before, Laotians are a community of hunters (which includes fishing) and farmers. This means they were not fishing just because they had that necessity, but also because it was in their roots. Many of them were already fishing back in Laos. It was something they were used to.
We can also see this reflected in their gastronomy. Many of their national dishes include fish or have some variant that includes fish. A quick search on Google about Laotian dishes will yield a list of dishes, and at least half of them will include fish in some way or another.
Local Government’s Response
The environmental issues in Richmond are very concerning to say the least. However, there are some things the authorities could do to at least mitigate the level of exposure to the residents of the area. For instance, they could try to warn the communities about the pollution and dangers some facilities contain, by placing readable and understandable warning signs in those facilities. They could also try to amend the environmental issues by cleaning the sites that can be cleaned. As we will see, the authorities do rarely ever do any of these things for the communities.
As a simple example that we have already seen, take the family discussed earlier. The family that grew their own vegetables next to their home. They were unaware of the pollution and contamination of the land they were using to plant their crops. No one disclaimed the situation of that land to the family, and the only warning sign in the area was not readable enough. According to Pamela and Audrey Chiang, the sign could barely be read, and it said something about “danger” and “toxics”. A similar case can be made for the fishermen of Richmond Harbor Channel, the channel that was contaminated by the pesticides formulator we discussed earlier. Audrey and Pamela say that during their “toxic tours” around Richmond, California, they always notice how all the warning signs in the area are unreadable from the shore.1 Sadly the Residential Lead-Based Paint Hazard Reduction Act of 1992 had not been created yet to protect the family. According to HG.org, the act stated that “[property] sellers must disclose all known lead-based paint and hazards in the house… include certain warning language in the contract as well as signed statements from both parties verifying that all requirements were completed.”
Audrey and Pamela also mention that in other occasions the signs are not even written in a language the Laotians can read. So, even if they hang their warnings, the Laotians cannot act according to the suggestions, since they cannot understand what the signs say.1
The environmental issues surrounding Richmond, California are concerning, and the authorities do not seem to be responding with their utmost attention against the communities’ issues. The authorities took decades to add both the Drew Sales contaminated soil and the channel polluted with pesticides to the Superfund Sites list, where they are scheduled to be cleaned. Even after they supposedly “cleaned” these sites, their solutions were more of a cover tactic rather than clean up solutions. What they did for the land was to just cover it with a clay cap.
Living around so many toxic facilities is bound to be a liability. The environmental issues in the area are so severe the people do what they call “toxic tours” around the area, showing off some of the environmental liabilities that can only be seen in Richmond. According to Denny Larson in a conversation with Gar Smith for Smith’s publication called Toxic Tour, major industrial accidents in Richmond happened all the time during the 90s and 80s. Larson says “For years, residents have complained bitterly about the seemingly endless flares, flames, eruptions, and blasts that sting their eyes and shower their rooftops with chemical dust.”
It seems strange how, even after all of these accidents in these toxic facilities, the authorities are still accepting expansions and new facilities in the city. In 2007 the Chevron Oil Refinery (the largest contributor to pollution in the city, as we discussed earlier), proposed an expansion project. This expansion would allow Chevron to burn heavier and more contaminated oil, which would require them to burn more fossil fuels, ultimately contributing even more to the air pollution in Richmond. Knowing the environmental situation of the city, one would assume that this expansion would not benefit the city or its residents in any way. What is to be expected is that the authorities reject this expansion and halt the project immediately. However, the City of Richmond did exactly the opposite and approved Chevron’s expansion project. This was a clear display of environmental injustice, where a city of minorities was disregarded, in favor of a plan that favored anyone but the community.
The Community’s Response
The communities in Richmond are tired of waiting (including the Laotians) for the authorities to alleviate these environmental issues, so they have taken the matter into their own hands. The Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN) is an environmental justice organization that brings together the efforts of California’s Asian immigrants and refugees to make their communities a healthier place. Starting in 1993, they have fought and won campaigns to make their vision of clean communities a reality. Their largest groups are the Laotian refugees in Richmond, and the Chinese immigrants in Oakland. As they put it: “Together, we’re building a movement powerful enough to make justice inevitable.”
APEN is fighting hard against anyone who threatens the livelihood of its communities, disregarding how big of an entity it might be. In response to the Chevron Oil Refinery expansion project discussed in the previous chapter, APEN and other environmental justice organizations grouped together to file a lawsuit against Chevron and the city of Richmond. The lawsuit accused Chevron’s expansion project to be against the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). Chevron’s Environmental Impact Report failed to inform that the expansion would allow them to refine heavier and more contaminated oil, which would consequently require Chevron to burn higher amounts of fossil fuels and pollute the air even more. Thankfully, Judge Zuniga ruled in favor of the environmental justice groups, and halted Chevron’s expansion project.13
APEN has also been working closely with the community to educate them about the environmental issues present in their areas, how to stay safe from the possible threats, and how to contribute to the elimination of these issues. Across the years, APEN has held various events in which they attract the community and teach them about the organization. One example was the West County Environmental Health Festival in Richmond. The event offered an overall fun atmosphere in the form of music and food. However, the true purpose of the festival was to reach out to one hundred Laotian Americans and help them understand what environmental justice is, and how their participation is essential for its success. Furthermore, “Some 45 environmental community and labor groups participated in the festival, teaching fairgoers how to clean bay fish to reduce contamination, how to conserve energy, even how to make hats from recycled materials.”
In conclusion, the Richmond Laotian community was especially affected by the environmental issues around their area because they relied on the environment in ways that made them more vulnerable to the pollution (namely farming and fishing), and the authorities did not help them much by not taking into consideration their cultural differences. When the authorities were formulating the regulations to reduce the exposure to contaminants, they should have taken into consideration how much Laotians like to fish and farm. They also should have tried to at least let the community know of the environmental hazards present in the city, by placing readable signs in English and the languages spoken by the communities in Richmond. Additionally, the authorities of the City of Richmond displayed environmental racism by allowing the expansion and establishments of toxic facilities in the city, disregarding the needs and health of the residents in communities of minorities.
Nevertheless, the minority groups in Richmond (including the Laotian community) have had enough of these environmental issues and have tried to improve the situation. They have created the Asian Pacific Environmental Network to help the residents come together and fight against these injustices. They have made progress by educating the communities and publicly protesting for the wellbeing of the residents.
The Richmond Laotian community is a good example of why environmental justice is important, and how a community can work together to turn the tables in their favor. The Laotians of Richmond, California have been facing environmental issues since the moment they immigrated to the United States. However, by working together they have been able to find new ways to live healthier within this polluted environment and have been able to push back big toxic waste facilities.
 Chiang, Audrey, and Pamela Chiang. “WORKING TOWARDS A HEALTHY COMMUNITY: The Laotian Organizing Project in Richmond.” Race, Poverty & the Environment 7, no. 2 (2000): 45-46. Accessed October 21, 2020. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41554284.
 Tai, Stephanie. 1999. “Environmental Hazards And The Richmond Laotian American Community: A Case Study In Environmental Justice”. Asian American Law Journal 6 (1): 189. doi:10.15779/Z38MW03.
 Aiko Pandorf, “Richmond’s Laotians: Putting a Community on the Map”, Race, Poverty and the Environment 6, no. 3 (1996): 31, accessed December 15, 2020, https://www-jstor-org.proxy.libraries.rutgers.edu/stable/41554249?sid=primo&seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents
 Gloria Chaeleunsy, in a conversation with Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN), Final APEN Statement (California: APEN, 2012), https://apen4ej.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/Final-APEN-Statement-1.pdf
 Sabin Martin and Wendy Griswold, “Human Health Effects of Heavy Metals”, Environmental Science and Technology Briefs for Citizens, no. 15, accessed December 15, 2020, https://d1wqtxts1xzle7.cloudfront.net/52927816/weres_2.pdf?1493736391=&response-content-disposition=inline%3B+filename%3DEnvironmental_Science_and_Technology_Bri.pdf&Expires=1608032046&Signature=M18n8dRrXhp8NC5C6pYbsUBFildhHp22rC9IL51laLat2ML6y2bUWIeIYvtXq4aXfFGpoY94m6S2~5RI7kkLUECWGjmDIuOviMZoA22hU3XhVT5Zkxcif61dsjtqPzkKbRUp4pvBukdWMZFz8hW23sRLem9pqn~AATXacd112ol7VPCwGrj8ET59LfPT1xD8ezILiw5~AYG~3AUXUimx1KgRPc5UjF6nG1ggpZMUMXeeWOm5c1hf6OHCIqykXlHzqm2YX4CqXLcM65QVN76T81eWd8KOU536PoI2RNu5o4xcLhHas3S2~l-FTGh2Dm6yu9QJVRLIaFJttJl04pzXoA__&Key-Pair-Id=APKAJLOHF5GGSLRBV4ZA
 Bouapha Toomaly, interview with Urban Revitalization and Brownfields, quoted in reference 4.
 Jacob Dean, “A Guide to the Essential Dishes of Laos”, last modified March 4, 2019, https://www.seriouseats.com/2018/05/a-guide-to-the-essential-dishes-of-laos.html
 Ari Gunadi, “10 Great Laotian Dishes – What to Eat in Laos”, accessed December 15, 2020, https://www.hotels.com/go/laos/great-laotian-dishes
 “Failing to Disclose Environmental Defects in Property Sales”, HG.org Legal Resources, accessed December 15, 2020. https://www.hg.org/legal-articles/failing-to-disclose-environmental-defects-in-property-sales-31064
 Gar Smith, “Toxic Tour – Drive through one of the West Coast’s deadliest neighborhoods”, Earth Island Journal, Autumn 2005, https://www.earthisland.org/journal/index.php/magazine/entry/toxic_tour/
 Ellen Choy and Ana Orozco, “Chevron in Richmond: Community-Based Strategies for Climate Justice”, Race, Poverty and the Environment 16, no. 2 (2009): 43 – 46, https://www.jstor.org/stable/41555169
 Janet Dang, “Festival Promotes a Better Environment: Richmond event targets Laotian Americans”, Asianweek (San Francisco, CA), July 29, 1998, https://login.proxy.libraries.rutgers.edu/login?url= ?url=https://www-proquest-com.proxy.libraries.rutgers.edu/newspapers/festival-promotes-better-environment-richmond/docview/367563148/se-2?accountid=13626
Keywords: Asian American, Toxics, Water, Soil, Pollution, Food, Factories, Community