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Letter: 'Tar sands oil smells like death'

“… A reporter asked me what tar sands smell like, and it smells like death. And that’s what it is …”

– Emma Lockridge

I went to Detroit because Marathon Oil is a third owner of a proposed Sandpiper pipeline that would cross our reservation and the watershed of our largest wild rice bed. I wanted to see where the oil was to go and to understand “need.” This “need” I refer to has to do with the Minnesota PUC June 5 approval of a “certificate of need” for the Enbridge Sandpiper, to serve Marathon Oil as the largest client of the pipeline. Marathon is also an owner, and the public was not allowed to know if there were any more contracts to be fulfilled by the pipeline, the Enbridge/Marathon pipeline. That’s a trade secret. So I decided to go see where the oil that the big companies want to cross my rice beds, would go.

And, I decided to see who Marathon was. That is where I met Emma Lockridge.

Most polluted

The Marathon oil refinery is in Boynton, Mich., ZIP code 48217, Michigan’s most polluted ZIP code. Emma’s a woman about my age, retired from administrative work. Her daughter just graduated from Harvard Business School and is working in South Africa. Emma lives in the house she was raised in, right in the shadow of the Marathon refinery.

My son and I first heard Emma speak in a Detroit church basement, where local residents had gathered to talk about challenges in their communities, including, no water, a bankrupt city, fossil fuel pipelines and refineries. I sat and listened. Emma stands up.

“ … We have a tar sands refinery in our community and it is just horrific. We are a sick community. We have tried to get them to buy us out. They keep poisoning us. And we cannot get them to buy our houses.” Emma is holding a sign that says: “Marathon Buy my House.” “I have had kidney failure. A neighbor died on dialysis,” she tells me. “Neighbor next door has dialysis. Neighbor across the street has kidney failure. The chemicals in pipelines are in our water and will be the same chemicals that come through your land and can break and contaminate. We have cancer, we have auto-immune illnesses, we have MS, we have chemicals that have come up into our homes through the sewer. Those are from the companies; they end up in the public water and sewer system. They are poisoning us,” she says, pointing to Marathon.

“In 2011, when Marathon had almost completed its upgrade to process more tar sands oil, it did buy out over 275 homes in Oakwood Heights, another neighborhood on the company fence line, to create a green buffer zone. Marathon … moved people from Oakwood Heights, and left us at the refinery. The people who they bought out were primarily white. The black people are left to die. We want them to buy out our houses, so we can live.”

Michigan maintains that each industrial plant emits no more of the chemicals and soot particles than allowed in their self-reporting monitoring. And that there is far less pollution there now than there was decades ago, before many plants installed modern pollution controls. That’s possible, but the cumulative impact is not assessed.

Accidental discharge

Studies are not complete, but it’s hard to get a study done. “We have asked the EPA for air monitors for five years,” Emma tells me. “We finally got one air monitor.” As we are standing there watching, a low-flying helicopter comes over the neighborhood. The next day, a group of men wearing EPA vests comes and looks at sewers. “It was an accidental discharge, they told us.” That would be a discharge into a public sewer system by the Marathon refinery.

I ask Emma to come to the White Earth and Mille Lacs reservations for formal hearings sponsored by the tribal government on the Enbridge lines. Those were held on June 4 and 5. When I get her to northern Minnesota, she says to me, “I can breathe now. I can really breathe. You don’t know what it’s like, to not be able to breathe.”

At the tribal hearings, a smartly dressed black woman goes to the front of the hearing to testify. She is far from home but acknowledges that her life is now linked to the Anishinaabe people, through a pipeline, a permit, and a company or two: Enbridge and Marathon.

“… When you step outside now, it feels as if you strike a match the air will explode. The chemicals come into our homes, come into our basements and we smell it all the time. Don’t let them put that pipeline here. I mean, it has always been bad, but not this bad,” says Emma Lockridge. “The air is just unbearable. It’s like living inside a refinery.”

New hearings on another 760,000 barrels of oil to cross Minnesota through Emma’s neighborhood begin in mid-August. This is what need looks like.

LaDuke is executive director, Honor the Earth, and an Ojibwe writer and economist on Minnesota’s White Earth reservation.