Walking across the country is a great way to see some amazing and unforgettable scenery. But depending on the route you take, you may come across some horrifying sights.
My five-month journey on foot from
New Mexico to Pennsylvania last year wasn't all New Mexico red rock and
Colorado mountains and rolling Iowa hills. It also included walking alongside cattle feedlots, touring industrial parks and passing through oil refineries.
September 9, 2014, the March left southeast Chicago and crossed from
Illinois into Indiana at the very unceremonious "State Line Avenue" road
sign. Almost instantly, it seemed, we emerged into the industrial belly
that is Whiting, Ind. Barbed wire fences, large tankers with obscure
contents, towering smokestacks billowing smog and a Super Wal-Mart to
put the cherry on top.
Soon, we were walking through Whiting's BP
oil refinery, BP's largest refinery and the sixth largest refinery in
the United States. In 2012, BP agreed to pay $8 million for Clean Air
Act violations at this refinery, according to Oil and Gas Online.
The last time we had walked through a refinery — Suncor outside of Denver, Colo.
— a small platoon of security vehicles stalked us closely. Tall privacy
fences rose up on either side of the road, making it nearly impossible
to see what was going on just beyond the fence. When I found a hole in
one of fence panels and stuck my GoPro camera through it, a menacing
voice came over a megaphone:
"Step away from the fence. Step away from the fence."
oil refinery in Whiting was more open than Suncor, and we got a close
look at the operations. We also had more interactions with the workers —
and, surprisingly, most were positive. Employees driving by waved to
us, and many came up to the chain link fences to get a better look and
even say hello.
The founder of the Climate March, Ed Fallon,
approached a worker who was operating a large machine with a long tube
sucking something up from a hole in the ground. They had a brief
conversation and Ed reported back to us that the worker was vacuuming a
waste spill leaking out of the plant. He explained to Ed that they used
to only vacuum on occasion; now, sucking up the leakage is an everyday
For a time, a small handful of the Marchers sat down in the road,
blocking traffic from entering the facility. None of the workers blared
their horns or even seemed to get angry. They just waited, watching in
silence, until the police came and rerouted traffic, rendering the
On Feb. 1, for the first time 35 years, about 3,800 oil workers from
across the country walked off the job and began striking. The strikers
are a part of the United Steelworkers Union, and they are seeking better
health care benefits and are protesting excessive use of contractors
and being overworked and understaffed.
Just yesterday, about 1,400
workers from two more oil refineries — BP's Whiting and Toledo, Ohio
operations — joined the strike, now 11 refineries strong. The Climate
March walked through both of these refineries. I imagine some of the
very same workers we spoke to in Whiting are now risking their
livelihood to demand better working conditions.
This massive strike dramatically highlights the intersection of the
environmental and worker's rights movements. Often, operations that are
dangerous for the environment are also dangerous for the people who work
there. The Whiting refinery supplies ample amounts of polluted air and
toxic substances that workers are subjected to every workday.
in Nebraska, we passed a massive industrial slaughterhouse and spent
time at an intersection watching cattle car after cattle car enter the
facility in a constant stream. One of the Marchers had an opportunity to
speak with a worker at this facility. As if the treatment of the cattle
wasn't horrible enough, this worker had lost one of his fingers while
on the job.
While the circumstances driving them to do it sadden
me, I was ecstatic to hear about the strike. Risking your livelihood is a
bold step to take, and I commend these workers for demanding better
treatment. The oil and gas industry is now facing pressure on many sides
— from activists to strict regulations to renewable energy growth to
its own workers.
The only reason these poisonous industries exist
is because there is demand for their products. It's time to retire oil
and gas, and we each need to play our part in phasing fossil fuels out
of our lives.
Information sources for oil worker strike:
*This blog post was originally published in The Ithacan Feb. 9.
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