Where does Richmond’s pollution come from? City of Richmond, Groundwork Richmond webinar provides insight 

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Where does Richmond’s pollution come from? City of Richmond, Groundwork Richmond webinar provides insight 
Aerial view of City of Richmond (Photo credit: Dick Lyon via Wikimedia Commons)

On Feb. 28, the City of Richmond, Groundwork Richmond and Ramboll hosted a public webinar on community air monitoring which shared data that might have surprised some in attendance. Despite the popular contention, the Chevron Richmond Refinery is not a primary source of pollution that Richmond residents are exposed to regularly, according to data derived from dozens of air monitors and sensors installed throughout the city.  

Actually, much of the pollution that impacts Richmond doesn’t come from Richmond. An analysis of data collected by the nonprofit Groundwork Richmond in recent years show that while traffic is a consistent contributor of particulate matter 2.5 (PM2.5) concentrations annually, sources that don’t come from Richmond, like smoke from wildfires, can make a big difference in air quality.  

“Regional background pollution,” which includes wildfires and other pollution that floats into Richmond from outside sources, contributed to nearly 56 percent of Richmond’s PM2.5 emissions in 2020, according to the analysis.

Recent data from the Bay Area Air Quality Managment District’s (BAAQMD) San Pablo monitor shows as much as 85 percent of PM2.5 in Richmond are from regional sources (see Slide 15 in BAAQMD presentation). 

The second largest contributor of pollution came from “area sources,” largely driven by emissions from residential wood burning. Area sources, which also includes emissions from fugitive dust from construction sites and restaurant stoves, made up 21 percent of PM2.5 concentrations in 2020, the data showed. 

Traffic emissions followed at 10 percent, and after that came non-road sources at 7 percent, which includes ships from the Port and rail operations. Finally, 6 percent of the pollution comes from industrial facilities, such as the Richmond Refinery and Richmond Port activities. 

The data also revealed differences in air quality among city neighborhoods, as well as pollution patterns that shift based upon seasonal changes in wind, weather and the atmosphere.  

Trees matter 

A row of trees or vegetation that separates neighborhoods from nearby traffic really does work to improve air quality. 

In the February webinar, an air quality consultant for the City of Richmond shared research that included data from four monitors operated by Groundwork Richmond that detect the presence of black carbon, a subset of particulate matter that forms when diesel, coal and other biomass fuels are burned. 




The AethLabs Aethalometers are located in different neighborhoods, at Fire Station 64 (4801 Bayview Ave.), Fire Station 67 (1131 Cutting Blvd), Groundwork Richmond’s headquarters (249A Tewksbury Ave.) and at the Richmond Police Department headquarters (1689 Regatta Blvd).  

Data collected from the four monitors, which are all located near heavily-trafficked roadways, have shown a consistent trend: black carbon pollution peaks at around 7 a.m. and 8 a.m. in the mornings and 7-10 p.m. at night, which corresponds with peak traffic periods.  

What’s of particular interest about the findings is that the Aethalometer located at the Richmond Police Department headquarters consistently registered the lowest amount of pollution of the four monitors. Unlike the others, that monitor was “located around shrubbery and vegetation.” 

“Which further validates that trees and vegetative barriers are really effective for reducing harmful air pollution,” said Ayah Hassan, a senior air quality consultant at Ramboll. 

The analysis only scrapes the surface of what we’re learning about Richmond’s air quality from the city’s growing army of sensors. 

Ramping up air monitoring 

Air monitoring programs have greatly amplified what we know about the quality of Richmond’s air. 

Beginning in 2013, Chevron Richmond has funded a program in partnership with the city that includes three air monitoring stations along the Refinery’s fenceline and three in the neighborhoods of North Richmond, Atchison Village and Point Richmond, according to Sabrina Paras, sustainability specialist and CivicSpark Americorps Fellow working in the Richmond City Manager’s Office. 

The program is operated by an independent third-party expert and provides real-time community air quality data, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The fenceline monitors measure 11 chemical compounds while the neighborhood-based monitors measure 17 compounds, Paras said.  

“Examples of monitored compounds include benzene, ammonia and black carbon, just to name a few,” Paras said. 

The Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) also has its own air monitoring network throughout the Bay Area, including a monitor located at Rumrill Road in San Pablo. BAAQMD offers a phone and online hotline for residents to report odors or air pollution, Paras said. 

In addition, the City and Groundwork Richmond partnered on a relatively new air monitoring program funded by the AB 617 Community Air Grants program. As part of the program, Groundwork Richmond completed the installation in 2019 of air monitoring sensors in Richmond through its Air Ranger program. The program features a network of 50 clarity sensors in parks and other public spaces throughout the city that measure particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide.  

The effort included implementation of Ramboll’s real-time air quality monitoring site, Shair, which the public can use to obtain “hyper-local air quality in the community.” 

Groundwork Richmond also conducts toxic metals analysis at nine locations throughout the Richmond community. The samples pull in particulate matter and are sent to a lab to determine the types of metals contained in them. 

Groundwork Richmond’s work isn’t done. The Air Rangers aim to refine their current air monitoring project and support a long-term sensor network in the community that includes 35 additional PurpleAir monitors that track particulate matter. A number of PurpleAir monitors, which are not subscription-based and run off Wi-Fi and a power source, are currently operating throughout the city by community members.  

Groundwork Richmond intends to install the 35 new PurpleAir sensors in areas not currently covered by existing sensors. To host one of the PurpleAir monitors their property, community members only need an outdoor power source and WiFi that reaches outdoors. 

Finally, Groundwork Richmond intends to add functions on the Shair air quality data functions specifically to glean impacts of wildfires, and also to pinpoint the impacts, if any, of Refinery flaring. 

Watch the webinar here:  Community Air Monitoring Webinar – YouTube

Want to know if you and your family can breathe easy at your neighborhood park? We compiled a list of resources. 

Lead photo source: Dick Lyon via Wikimedia Commons