Oil and Me

So, a large part of my life has revolved around oil refineries.

I was born in Jeffersonville, Indiana, a suburb of Louisville , Kentucky in 1981. My father worked for Ashland Oil (now Marathon Oil) in their Louisville Refinery. This refinery was shut down in 1983, and my dad accepted a transfer to Ashland Oil’s main operation in Catlettsburg, Kentucky, where my family moved when I was 2 years old. Many other workers from Louisville, and from another shuttered refinery in Buffalo, New York were also relocated to the Ashland Oil refinery there.

So, my entire childhood, youth, life, etc. were directly affected by the flux of the industrial economy, one that is now dying or dead in most of the U.S., offshored to other places for higher profits and lax regulation. And as my life was affected by this move, I learned many things from this refinery, which still touches me in various ways.

The refinery is why I grew up in Appalachian, Kentucky, never knowing another place until traveling and moving around years later. Hell, the high school I went to was named after former Ashland Oil executive Paul G. Blazer, know for his pioneering work to seek federal subsidies for the domestic oil industry in the U.S. (ugh, I know, right?) This refinery paid for most everything in my life (my mother worked as well, but for minimal wages), clothes, school, cars, what have you. This refinery not only influenced me economically in a personal way, but it controlled the economy of the whole town and region, sponsoring events and filling city coffers with tax revenue and the like. When it was bought out in 1998 by Marathon Oil from Ohio, and the corporate office in Ashland closed and jobs were slashed, this decimated the area in a way that it has never recovered from. The NAFTA years, which also resulted in what has led to near death blows for the steel industry around Ashland as well, were not kind to the Appalachia Rust Belt on the Ohio River. People left, capital left, towns shrank in half, infrastructure crumbed and drugs arrived. For a good read about these years in Appalachia and how folks fought back, I highly recommend the book, “To Move a Mountain:Fighting the Global Economy in Appalachia.”

As industry fled, its residual pollution and the consequences remained. This refinery also not only affected my health and my families, but the health of the whole region, and still continues to do so. Beyond destroying my dad’s back, industry also worked over the air quality of the region. One gem from a few years ago, concerning the elementary school that I went to and that my mom worked at, is linked here: “Chemical found in air outside 15 schools” Oh, of those schools, three of them are in Ashland, and all of them were exposed to, “elevated levels of a substance that — in a more potent form — was also used as a chemical weapon during World War I.”

This link with Ashland Oil extends to my adult working life as well, again concerning not only air pollution but water pollution as well. The Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, who used to employ your truly, fought its first big campaign back in the 1980’s and 90’s against Ashland Oil and their assault on the health and environment of the community. A summary of their great work on this can be found here. Highlights include: “in response to persistent (ten-years) and intense pressure from OVEC members and the organized surrounding communities, the US Department of Justice fined Ashland $5.8 million, and forced them to put aside over $30 million to bring their three US refineries into full compliance with pollution laws. Ashland was forced to install video cameras linked to regulators’ offices for pollution monitoring-the first such action taken in the United States.”

Ashland Oil later went on to spin off its nascent coal division into a separate company, which became Arch Coal, which is now the second largest supplier of coal in the U.S and the major proponent of Mountaintop Removal coal mining in Appalachia.

This oil refinery also shaped my views of organized labor and the power of a union. My father was a proud member of OCAW, the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union, which later became PACE and was eventually folded into the United Steelworkers union. These union wages and benefits are what prompted my father and my family to relocated for this job, and also made them able to pay for the things I mentioned previously. It was not just oil that enable me to have a middle class upbringing, and it was not just my father’s labor, it was the collective labor of all those at the refinery and their collective union bargaining for these wages and benefits. I distinctly remember a labor dispute in the early 90’s, the picket lines, the strike fund, the scabs and the solidarity. It gave me a profound respect for these brave workers and how the middle class was built in this country, which was not given to us by corporations but by us demanding our fair share. It was also great to see their successful labor action of last year as part of a nationwide refinery strike, speaking up for worker safety and winning.

So, why am I writing about this now? Why all this reminiscing and rambling? To what end? Well, finding myself now in the Bay Area of California again for awhile, I find myself surrounded by oil refineries (some of whom were part of this nationwide strike last year)! In fact, there are five of them. And as you might have guessed, this has caused some serious health issues, mostly around air quality, for both refinery workers and those in the communities around them. A coalition of organizations are seeking a “Community Based Clean Air Solution.” As it turns out, using the tactics out of Paul G. Blazer’s playbook, the oil companies have set up a pretty cushy regulatory environment, where there are currently NO limits on refinery-wide emissions. The “Communities for a Better Environment” coalition is asking the Bay Area Air Quality Management District to adopt limits at the current levels of emission, which are increasing, to stop further increases which include Greenhouse gases and harmful particulates. It also turns out that the BAAQMD does not currently monitor these toxic air emissions, and that refineries are “self regulating.” We’ve seen how this works out in the past, from Ashland Oil to BP to Exxon, etc. It is a history of failure and harm to workers and community. Giant capitalist corporations can never be trusted to police themselves, which is why the BAAQMD needs to step up and not only cap emissions at their current levels, but also adopt a moratorium on new permits for “dirtier” oil projects. The BAAQMD is, after all, an elected body. So, let’s exercise our rights and fulfil our democratic duty and exert some power of these folks, as the oil industry has been doing to our detriment for far too long.

If you live in the Bay, contact them now and ask for a cap at current emission levels for all Bay Area refineries and a moratorium on permits for dirty oil projects. Just as the oil industry has a history of polluting communities and their workers by governmental influence via money, we have a tradition as citizens for powerful grassroots organizing to combat this influence and fight for justice, from OVEC to OCAW to the CBE and others. You’re already a part of the effects from this pollution, so be a part of the solution to stop it as well.

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