An explosion yesterday at the Marathon oil refinery in Southeast Louisiana was a bitter reminder of the day-to-day risks faced by workers in the oil, gas and petrochemical industry, as well as the fenceline communities who live with the direct consequences of these plants. While the blaze was eventually tamed, at least one contractor was brought to a local hospital to treat their injuries.
The Marathon Refinery came online in 1976, among the more recent oil refineries to be constructed in the United States. Built in Garyville, Louisiana — a rural town in St. John the Baptist Parish — Marathon has long been regarded as a complicated figure in the local economy. St. John Parish is right next door to St. James Parish, where organizations like Inclusive Louisiana and RISE St. James have emerged in recent years to challenge industry like Formosa Plastics and demand a better future for their communities.
Moments after news came about the incident at Marathon, I reached out to Jo Banner. She’s an organizer, advocate and community leader, born and raised in St. John. In the past couple of years, the two Banner sisters have founded an organization called The Descendants Project. They launched with the initial mission to fight the Greenfield Grain Elevator, the latest pollution threat to Louisiana’s Cancer Alley communities. The Descendants Project has worked to analyze the political and financial conditions that make their parish so open to unchecked industrial expansion, while they establish job and skills training programs to provide economic alternatives for residents of their historic community.
“St. John Parish is in bed with industry,” Banner told me. “There’s always been a strong partnership between our local government and Marathon Oil. Marathon sponsors festivals and makes small donations, but what they give back to St. John is nothing compared to what they’re taking from our Parish.”
Marathon isn’t the only industry in St. John Parish causing problems. Roughly seven miles down the Mississippi River from the Marathon refinery lies the Denka plant in Reserve. The only facility in the nation producing neoprene, a synthetic rubber, Denka is located a stone’s throw away from neighborhoods where people live. Today, Reserve residents face the highest risk of cancer in the U.S.
Industrial extraction is an ever-present threat to Louisiana’s people, but at times there are moments of rupture — like yesterday’s explosion – that illustrate these dangers in stark relief. Other times this extraction is less dramatic, but no less harmful. For years Marathon has benefited from Louisiana’s Industrial Tax Exemption Program, one of the most generous tax give-away deals in the United States. St. John has forked out over $43 million in potential revenue that could have gone to social services, community development or local infrastructure. They’ve passed out these funds to Marathon oil at the same time as the local school board has faced budget shortfalls of over $11 million.
Residents like Jo Banner struggle to understand why Marathon actively extracts resources from her parish that could support families, children and schools. As a multi-billion dollar, international company, the tax breaks Marathon gets from the St. John Parish government are a drop in the bucket to them but pose serious challenges for the community she loves. “What is that money to Marathon?” She asked.
Not just a beneficiary of local give-aways, Marathon has also taken in billions in federal tax breaks, even as it laid off nearly 2,000 workers across its US facilities in 2020 and 2021.
It’s not just loss of revenue that has residents like Banner concerned. Healthy Gulf’s analysis of Marathon Oil’s air permits show that it is one of the largest emitters of particulate matter 2.5 (PM2.5) in the parish. PM2.5 is a fine dust that can enter into the bloodstream and lungs, sometimes leading to life-threatening illnesses. Communities of color, like the town of Wallace where the Descendants Project is based, face higher rates of exposure to PM2.5 than white communities – regardless of location or income level.
Responding to the dangers posed to human health by Marathon’s emissions, the EPA moved last year to start monitoring the air around this facility. But organizations that advocate for community and environmental well-being, like the Descendants Project and Healthy Gulf, are unable to access the data from Marathon’s air monitors. We don’t have means of verifying that this information is being collected, being reported to the EPA and Louisiana’s Department of Environmental Quality, or what implications the refinery’s emissions could have on the air folks like Banner breathe.
As a result, it’s often up to community organizations and environmental groups to do the work of our officials to track pollution and analyze its impacts to human health. During the pandemic, Healthy Gulf launched its “Toxics Watch” program. Since then we have deployed over a dozen air monitors throughout Southeast Louisiana. Through Toxics Watch, Healthy Gulf trains residents to install air monitors, record data and report pollution incidents to regulatory agencies.
Meanwhile, the Descendants Project is working diligently to organize for economic alternatives to heavy industry. They’ve partnered with IATSE, the film workers union, to develop a training program for St. John residents. Upon completion of training, residents can most likely secure jobs with a starting pay of $35/hour plus benefits without a college degree.
“The parish fights against us at every moment. We need officials who aren’t so in love with industry,” Banner told me. “I would like to see politicians that listen to the community, who sit down with us to really understand what St. John residents want for the future of our Parish.”