Welcome to Marktown, a working-class community on the frontlines of extreme oil

BP's Whiting refinery looms near the doorstep of this home in Marktown, Indiana. Credit: https://flic.kr/p/64qxbf
Christine Geovanis | June 26, 2014

At the foot of BP Whiting’s tar sands refinery, along the shores of Lake Michigan, sits the century-old East Chicago, Indiana community of Marktown. Three months ago, the Whiting refinery spewed 1,500 gallons of crude oil into the Great Lake, but critics charge that the March 24 malfunction is nothing compared to the potential disasters ahead if BP continues to game Indiana's regulatory system, dodging safety and environmental protections. Meanwhile, BP has begun buying up and bulldozing properties in Marktown. Originally built in the 1890s to house steel workers’ families and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Marktown happens to inconveniently lie directly within a potential blast zone should the plant experience a catastrophic failure

“There have already been two full-scale evacuations at Whiting that essentially no one outside of the immediate area knows about,” Dr. Howard Ehrman a local physician and environmentalist. Ehrman says the situation has only become more precious since the refinery expanded and upgraded last year to process tar sands oil. “While there were safety evacuations at the plant before BP’s tar sands expansion, they’re getting more frequent now.”

Marktown’s residents say BP officials have alternately told them the company wants to buy their homes to expand ‘green space’ or to build new parking lots. Another theory, put forward by BP's critics, is that the company is seeking to shield itself from potential liabilities the Whiting refinery poses to residents. The standing offer from BP for Marktown homes: $30,000 to $35,000 per property. Some residents count five continuous generations of family members living in the tightly-knit, multi-racial working-class community. They are refusing to leave.

“This is my home,” said grandmother Kim Rodriquez, who is active in the battle to prevent BP from buying up and razing Marktown. “How would somebody else feel if somebody just came up to you and decided that’s not supposed to be your home anymore, and the only home you’ve ever known is threatened? I love Marktown. The money BP is offering us won’t replace our homes – and sure won’t replace our community.”

The Whiting refinery is built on the bones of an old Amoco refinery that dates back to the turn of the twentieth century. By 1998 when it was acquired by BP the plant was the largest refining operation in the Midwest. Meanwhile, the surrounding region has fallen on tough times – the consequence of a sweeping exodus of the steel mills and pipe rolling plants that once dominated the lakefront region.

When BP first announced plans to expand its Whiting refinery – promising living wage jobs and a boost to a local economy battered by deindustrialization – residents were hopeful.

That hope soon turned to outrage. The construction jobs are gone, and the Whiting tar sands expansion created, by all reports, fewer than 100 new permanent jobs at the plant. East Chicago granted BP a seven-year tax abatement to encourage expansion the project – a sizable chunk of change for one of the state’s poorest cities. But there has been little hiring among local folks at the plant, now the largest distillation tower and the second-largest petroleum coking facility in the nation.

“We’re dealing with the extraordinary impact of our industrial history,” says East Chicago resident Thomas Frank, who’s been active in the battle against bulldozing Marktown. “We’ve got a poor minority community with one of most profitable companies in the world on it’s doorstep – and the massive environmental injustice that comes from a history of contamination and re-industrialization.”

Frank argues that the Marktown teardown is part of an effort to immunize the company from the human costs of a foreseeable disaster. He points to a 2005 explosion at BP's Texas City refinery where the company's own safety documents ahead of the blow-up[ noted that its workers labored under an "exceptional degree of fear of catastrophic incidents.” Noting that BP has initiated a program to move managerial staff away from Whiting, Frank worries that the Whiting refinery could be a powder keg just like Texas City.

There are millions of gallons of oil in the groundwater surrounding the Whiting refinery, residue from a 1991 spill back when the plant was operated by Amoco. Cleaning up this sea of oil and its mix of benzine and other combustible vapors was expected to take 20 years. Instead, BP simply paved over that 16 million gallon hydrocarbon soup during its tar sands expansion.

“BP is selfish,” said Kim Rodriguez. “They are all about money and business, with no consideration of people.” She and her neighbors would like BP to put up a barrier to protect the neighborhood from any possible mishap at the refinery – or, better yet, go away and leave her neighborhood alone. “I’m third generation here,” she said. “My grandmother, my mother, myself – and now my grandkids and my nephews live here. It hurts my heart to even think about walking out of that front door and never coming back.”

BP made more than $13 billion in profits in 2013 – a tidy return for shareholders who’ve seen plenty of black in their stock portfolios from company profits in recent years despite ongoing litigation around liabilities that include the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. BP’s CEO Bob Dudley has said the company expects Whiting to contribute roughly $1 billion in cash flow for the company by the end of 2014 alone – thanks to repurposing the refinery to handle tar sands oil. But that ledger value does not factor in the huge public costs in health and quality of life for people who live within the footprint of the company’s operations or for those beyond the region who contend with the growing consequences of the extreme oil resource exploitation which the BP Whiting plant facilitates.

Residents near industrial hubs in the Midwest such as Marktown are trying to straddle immediate safety threats posed by refineries with larger environmental issues as companies like BP morph their facilities out of legacy operations. Restoring the Great Lakes – rather than putting the waters at increased peril from oil transport and oil refining – could generate some $50 billion in economic benefits alone for the region, according to a Brookings Institute report. Their analysis does not even cost out the long-term benefit of improved health and well-being for the region’s residents and the environment. For Marktown residents, restoring the Great Lakes would mean they could stay put and live without the threat posed by the Whiting refinery.

In May, however, BP started demolishing a portion of the Marktown properties it has already purchased.

“This isn't just a problem for us,” said Carlotta Blake-King with the Calumet Project. She has lived in the Whiting area for more than 35 years and has helped organize water testing brigades with Marktown residents and is working to pressure BP to provide credible data on its air pollution emissions “These kinds of environmental crises are happening all over in poor communities, in Texas, Indiana, Illinois, across the nation. If we're going to look out for future generations we've got to mobilize, organize, get ourselves involved.”

This is the second installment of a two part series from SystemChangeNotClimateChange.org that examines the increasing build-up of fossil fuel infrastructure in the Great Lakes region and its impacts on surrounding communities. Read the first installment here.