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Toxic Tar Sands: Michigan

Theresa Landrum

Dr. Dolores Leonard

Jackie Smith

Theresa Landrum
Detroit, Michigan

Theresa Landrum still lives on the same block where she was born in southwest Detroit, surrounded by an industrial hub of polluting industries, with smokestacks and chemical tanks just a chain-link fence away from backyards and parks. Many of the Midwest's largest petrochemical refiners, including the massive Marathon refinery, are Landrum's not-so-friendly neighbors.

Landrum believes the refineries are responsible for the cancer and illness in her family and neighborhood, and the problem will become worse as the Marathon refinery expands to process more tar sands crude, which contains more pollutants.

A trained journalist, Landrum stopped working full-time in the early 1990s to help her mother when she was diagnosed with cancer."My mom had four different cancers," Landrum says. "First she had cancer of the throat, then the face. In 1986 she was diagnosed with lung cancer but survived. Then she developed cancer of the other lung and died in 1996."

"When we found out Marathon was bringing in nasty tar sands from Canada, my first reaction was 'Lord have mercy. Where can we go?'"
Landrum's father -- a one-time Marathon Oil employee -- also died of cancer. Landrum is convinced that the toxic environment of her neighborhood contributed to their illnesses and subsequent deaths. "Ten people on my block have died of cancer in the last decade," Landrum explains. "We have a lot of pneumonia, too -- one of my brothers died of it -- and lots of asthma. All the little kids in the house across the street have asthma, and their father just died of cancer."

Landrum was horrified when Marathon announced plans to build a $2.2 billion expansion to process tar sands crude -- the world's dirtiest oil. "When we found out Marathon was bringing in nasty tar sands from Canada, my first reaction was 'Lord have mercy. Where can we go?'"

She started researching what kinds of chemicals would be emitted by the new tar sands facility and the effects they can have on human health. "We found terrible things. Carcinogens, carbon monoxide, benzene and toluene, which harm the nervous system, methyl ethyl ketone, which can cause blindness. A lot of really bad stuff."

Landrum began attending community meetings and block meetings, and talking to anybody who would listen about the increased pollution coming from tar sands refining.

In 2007, Landrum herself was diagnosed with cancer. While undergoing chemotherapy and radiation, she continued to attend Detroit City Council meetings to protest the tar sands expansion of the Marathon refinery. That fight was lost.

Landrum's cancer is now in remission, although a recent chest x-ray showed severe damage to her lungs, and she is undergoing tests to determine the cause of an enlarged thyroid and a goiter in her neck. Undaunted, she continues to fight to stop tar sands oil from further poisoning her home.

Landrum says the toxic tar sands expansion has left many of her neighbors ready to give up. Pushed beyond their limits by ever increasing tar sands pollution, some are considering suing the city and Marathon for money to relocate away from their ravaged environment.

"Sometimes," Landrum says, "it seems like these companies put dollars above human life."

Dr. Dolores Leonard
Detroit, Michigan

Dr. Dolores Leonard, a retired professor, lives a few blocks from Marathon Oil Company's refinery in southeast Detroit in the same house she's called home for 53 years. Leonard has been fighting for environmental justice in her community since 2003. She's earned a reputation as a formidable opponent to polluters.

There are dozens of polluting industries in Leonard's zip code, and she works hard to rein in toxic emissions and protect public health in her neighborhood. But no issue has taken up more of her time and energy than Marathon's new refining expansion -- a $2.2 billion "upgrade" to its facilities to increase the volume of tar sands coming into Leonard's community.

Despite opposition from neighbors, the Marathon refinery's pollution is ballooning as more tar sands are processed in the expanded facility.

"This tar sands refinery brings illness for miles as we have known it will never be the same."
Leonard is not surprised that her neighborhood has been targeted for processing the dirtiest form of oil in the world. Experience has taught her that the worst pollution usually finds its way to the poorest communities. "When you look at where detrimental polluting facilities are located," Leonard says, "it's always in communities where there are poor people and people of color."

Leonard was determined to arm her neighbors in their fight to protect air and health from the growing tar sands threat. Twice she helped bring in a toxicologist from the Michigan Department of Community Health to talk with residents of her community about illnesses related to living in the vicinity of oil refining, and to explain how residents can file a Toxic Release Inventory with the EPA.

More times than she can remember, Leonard has appeared before the Detroit City Council to protest the devastating impacts of tar sands -- not only on southwest Detroit, but wherever pipelines carry tar sands crude oil.

Leonard has set up public hearings with the Michigan Department of Community Health to help inform her neighbors about the threats of processing tar sands oil.

"There are so many health and quality-of-life problems resulting from all the heavy industry -- and now tar sands -- in the neighborhood, and you live with it every day," Leonard says. "This tar sands refinery brings illness for miles around, along with stress for residents who are watching it being built. They know that along with the structure comes the knowledge that life as we have known it will never be the same. It gives one the feeling of being trapped and helpless."

Jackie Smith
Detroit, Michigan

Jackie Smith has lived in Detroit since 1967, watching her neighborhood slowly deteriorate under the shadow of the Marathon Oil Refinery, which is now preparing to process additional tar sands crude.

The sharp winds of the Midwest blow Marathon's toxic fumes right over Smith's home -- fumes she believes have caused her family's health problems.

"My middle son had nose bleeds when he was a child. The doctor said it was from benzene," she says. Benzene is a potent human carcinogen.

"My husband has asthma and emphysema, hypertension, and sleep apnea. My sinuses were purple like I'd smoked all my life and I've never smoked. You should hear my voice in the morning. I'm gagging. This has been going on for over 10 years."

"They're killing a community."
Smith's husband, Robert, is frustrated with public hearings where officials seem to turn a deaf ear to community complaints of pollution and poor air quality. But she is more optimistic. Expert air quality monitors were recently called in to assess the neighborhood's air after Smith and her neighbors called attention to poor monitoring practices in her area. The independent tests showed major discrepancies with the state's results, indicating toxins in her community were even higher than reported.

"[Marathon's] refinery is too near to local schools," Smith says. "When you go into someone's house and smell the chemicals, why would you want to stay here?"

Children in Smith's neighborhood will be exposed to increased levels of airborne toxins from Marathon's tar sands expansion, further exacerbating respiratory and other illnesses already prevalent among children in her neighborhood.

"Tar sands oil is more toxic than regular oil, so what kinds of effects will that have on children already suffering from asthma?" Smith wonders. "They're killing a community."

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