Putting faces to the numbers: An LABB intern meets the people most affected by refinery pollution

DukeEngage students Vu Phan and Ziwei Wang are seen with LABB Community Liaison Iris Carter. Phan and Wang helped Carter organize a community meeting in Garyville recently.

LABB intern Vu Phan, a Duke University student, has spent the last eight weeks researching Marathon Oil and preparing for a recent community meeting in the neighboring town of Garyville. 

I was excited to work for the Louisiana Bucket Brigade this summer, but before starting my internship I did not know very much about oil refineries or the fenceline communities around them. I had learned that LABB was a non-profit organization that specialized in oil refinery research through efforts such as the Refinery Efficiency Initiative. Yet, I did not know the extent to which LABB worked with communities around the state. Consequently, given my experience working at a research laboratory back at Duke University, I had expected most of my work would involve data analysis. Instead, what I will appreciate most from this experience was the opportunity to meet and work with a new community, one that opened my eyes to the continuing problem of pollution from oil refineries in Louisiana.

It was during my initial research for our Garyville community presentation June 30 that I first became truly aware of this problem. I was able to learn a great deal about the emissions from refineries based on data from the Toxics Release Inventory and the incident reports from various oil companies. Each year, oil refineries release thousands of pounds of waste during accidents, yet I would often read incident reports that were missing key pieces of information such as the root cause of the accident, the preventability of the accident, or the steps taken to prevent future reoccurrences. Ultimately, I was forced to read reports that were incomplete, even though all of this data is supposed to be made readily available to the public.

It wasn’t until I was able to visit fenceline communities that I truly empathized with the problem of pollution in these areas. Visiting communities such as Garyville and Donaldsonville, I was struck by the sheer number of chemical facilities and oil refineries in the area, particularly along the Mississippi River. These facilities often seemed to be no less than a few miles away from homes. For instance, I remember being able to see (and smell) Marathon Refinery from the front yards of houses we visited in Garyville. Often, while driving or even walking outside, we would encounter odors that smelled like rotten eggs (most likely from the sulfur dioxide emitted by these plants) and in Donaldsonville we met one lady who was able to tell us about the frequent odor of burning trash in her community.

Ultimately, it was the opportunity to speak with residents that would have the most profound impact on how I viewed the problem of oil refinery emissions. Having to hand out fliers for our meeting in Garyville, I was extremely nervous because I had never met these people, visited these neighborhoods or lived in Louisiana. I remember speaking to a man in Garyville who told us about the problem of petroleum coke in the area. He said he could place a bucket of water outside and after a while the water would become black from petroleum coke (from Marathon) that would fill the bucket. Also while in Garyville, we met another man who spoke about the problem of cancer in his community. He knew someone who had just died of thyroid cancer. He noted that if murder were not a problem in the neighborhood, then he felt he would see more people living longer and potentially dying of cancer. I was also able to meet a few more community members at our meeting in the Garyville Public Library. It was nice to be able to see other people who also shared our enthusiasm for this issue.

I consider these experiences to be invaluable because the opportunity to meet with community members helped us understand the problems these people are forced to face every day. These are issues that must be viewed not only within the context of the environment but also race, education and economics because it is often the poorest members of our communities who must cope with all the problems caused by the chemicals these facilities release.

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