Living in the shadow of oil: Refinery Healing Walks

Posted on June 16, 2014

[Editors’ note: This article is a personal reflection from Communications Working Group Associate Francesca Pera.]

What do you do when you live within short walking distance of the ConocoPhillips (Phillip’s 66) refinery in Rodeo? How do you comfort your four-year-old grandson — visiting at Christmastime — as he experiences a severe asthma attack after running outside? What is the response to the imminent movement of oil by rail into the refinery corridor in the northeast section of the Diocese of California? 

These are the issues facing two DioCal priests, the Rev. Susan Champion (Christ the Lord, Pinole) and the Rev. Peter Champion, retired. In addition to their community involvement, on Saturday, June 14, Susan and Peter, joined by approximately 75 people (including my husband Jeff and I), walked the third leg of Connect the Dots: Refinery Healing Walks 2014. This 15-mile walk took us from the waters of the Carquinez Strait in Benicia, through Vallejo, across the Zampa Bridge / Highway 80, to Rodeo.

Organized by the group Idle No More, with the support of many San Francisco Bay Area organizations*, the four monthly walks reflect a long history of Native American healing walks and pilgrimages from different religious traditions.

Rising at 5:15 on Saturday morning Jeff and I travelled from San Francisco by Muni and BART to meet our carpool at the McArthur Station. By 8 a.m. we met Susan and Peter at Benicia’s 9th Street Park. As more people arrived, participants soon gathered in circle at the water’s edge in a pre-walk prayer where a bowl with water from the Strait was passed from hand to hand in blessing.

The walk began with Idle No More leaders in chant and prayer moving through Benicia meeting residents with our banners, our greetings, and information about the walks. As we moved along busier streets a surprising number of cars waved and honked in solidarity. Throughout the journey we maintained a steady, conscious pace to drumbeats as those at the front walked in silence and prayer; at several points we stopped for rest and group prayer.

Each of the four Refinery Corridor Healing Walks is intended to bring attention to the five oil refineries along the Northeast Bay. This walk — in the approach to Rodeo — brought us to the ConocoPhillips’ San Francisco Refinery. As we walked out of Crockett (on the south side of the Zampa Bridge), up and over the hill, we were accompanied by a highway patrol officer on motorcycle and soon began to see intensified security on the refinery property and at each entry point. Those who had participated in the previous two walks reported that the level of refinery security had increased.


Was this a response to the growing community concern over ConocoPhillip’s proposed project for propane recovery from dirty oil shipped by rail from the Alberta Tar Sands and the Bakken Oil Fields in North Dakota? On June 3, the Contra Costa Board of Supervisors ordered a recirculation of the expansion project’s Environmental Impact Report.

Those opposed to the project, have multiple concerns. According to a Credo Mobilize petition the concerns were recently stated as such:

Although Phillips 66’s refinery is small compared to others in the Bay Area, it produces almost twice as much pollution as the colossal Chevron refinery in Richmond.

Now Phillips 66 is pushing a major expansion to its Rodeo refinery that would increase its capacity to refine, and its thirst for, planet-heating Tar Sands crude. Phillips 66's dirty secret is that Tar Sands is already being shipped to East Bay refineries on accident-prone rail cars — but this expansion threatens to dramatically increase oil train traffic, air pollution, carbon pollution, and the risk of spills and accidents.

To make matters worse, Phillips 66 wants to site a major part of its propane expansion project in a liquefaction zone. Phillips 66’s planning around this project is reckless and endangers fence line communities.

A major concern for Susan and Peter is their community in Northeast Rodeo. There is no industrial buffer zone in Northeast Rodeo, thus making their neighborhood (including the Bayo Vista public housing project and a Head Start center) “ground zero” were the six proposed tanks to explode.

Many of us living in the San Francisco Bay Area have very little knowledge of the refinery corridor, or that by 2016 25% of oil coming into California will move by rail where the infrastructure is poorly prepared for derailment. Walking the path of the refineries and the communities impacted by oil is a powerful way to be up close to something we often take for granted. It is a pilgrimage where one can experience the smells, the sounds, the sights, and the fears of those living in the shadow of oil. The fourth and final 2014 Connect the Dots: Refinery Healing Walk will be on Saturday, July 12, from Rodeo to Richmond. For more information contact the Rev. Susan Champion,, or Francesca Pera,

* Organizations supporting the Healing Walk include, Credo Action, Global Exchange, Sunflower Alliance, Sierra Club, Greenpeace, and more.