Putting research into action in Garyville

LABB intern Ziwei Wang, a Duke University student, has spent the last seven weeks researching Marathon Oil and preparing for a recent community meeting in the neighboring town of Garyville. Below, she talks about her work and the community members she’s met.

Last Thursday, we held our first community meeting in Garyville, La. The goal of the meeting was to inform the neighborhood about the emissions and health effects of chemicals released by Marathon Oil in Garyville. We also hoped to get a sense of residents’ interest in collaborating to work toward holding Marathon more accountable for their chemical releases.

When looking at an aerial map of the area, one is immediately struck by the significantly larger size of Marathon refinery compared to the surrounding neighborhood of Garyville.

The neighborhood is made up of the streets on the lower left corner of the map while the refinery lies largely within the red circle. It’s easy see how a neighborhood that’s so largely eclipsed in size and close in vicinity to a refinery would be significantly impacted by any polluting emissions.

The majority of time spent preparing for the community meeting involved reviewing Toxic Releases Inventory data detailing permitted emissions from Marathon refinery, reviewing emissions from on-site refinery accidents and researching the health effects of the most commonly released chemicals. USA Today’s report, “The Smokestack Effect” proved to be an extremely valuable resource in helping evaluate the impact of chemicals on children. The report aimed to measure levels of pollution around roughly 128,000 elementary schools in the country. The three elementary schools in Garyville all ranked in the top 3rd percentile for having the worst pollution in the country.

This sobering finding really motivated us to delve more deeply into the health effects of chemicals on children’s development. It soon became evident that there is little concrete research on the effects of chemicals on children’s health or the long-term effects of chemicals on the human body. Individuals living near refineries or chemical plants aren’t facing acute exposures to a single chemical, but are rather living with the long-term, potentially cumulative effects of many different chemicals. We know that any given chemical has its own set of harmful effects on the human body. What we don’t know is how these chemicals may interact with one another to potentially cause even further damage to our bodies.

Map showing the three elementary schools and their vicinity to Marathon Oil in Garyville and other plants in the area.

While most of our time was spent inside the office researching information on a computer screen, the most rewarding experience was actually going out into Garyville to interact with the community members and tell them about our meeting. Driving out to Garyville and walking through the streets talking to the residents who could provide personal stories to corroborate our research really brought a more personal aspect to our project. Hearing how a bucket of water left outside overnight will be covered with a film of black petroleum coke dust in the morning really emphasized the importance of the research we were doing. We realized through handing out fliers in the community that people simply want their stories told and voices heard. We hoped that our meeting could provide the community with a venue to do so.

On the day of the meeting, we looked forward to finally sharing our findings with the community and hearing their thoughts and concerns. Ironically, the first people to show up were three employees from Marathon. The thought of giving our presentation solely to curious Marathon workers was entertaining, but seemed counterproductive to our overall goal of reaching out to the community.

Luckily, a few minutes later several Garyville residents began filing in. After giving our presentation, there was time for discussion and everyone to ask questions and share their concerns. You could detect the level of frustration in many of the community members’ questions and stories about living in the area. Many of the attendees agreed that there was a general sense of complacency and hopelessness that had settled over Garyville regarding residents’ power to effectively bring about change.

Understandably, some of the residents were curious about exactly why Louisiana Bucket Brigade had come to Garyville and how we could help address their concerns. Our hope was that hosting the meeting would be a way to link community members who were passionate and motivated to organize and increase awareness in the community about the effects of living near a large oil refinery.

As we’ve learned through our summer at the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, it may take more than one person to bring about change, but often no more than one person to serve as the catalyst to initiate it. Luckily, at the meeting we met an individual who had just recently started a Concerned Citizens of Garyville group to address the very issues highlighted in our presentation. After exchanging contact information, we hope to collaborate in the future with the community group to provide them with the resources necessary to improve their air quality and health of their community.

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