Nearly 200 demonstrators gathered in Marktown Park, a neighborhood in East Chicago, Indiana, as part of a nationwide day of action that took place in more than 100 cities to protest the use of fossil fuels and to urge President Obama to reject the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. Demonstrators say they chose Marktown, which rests in the shadow of the BP Whiting refinery, because of the recent spill into Lake Michigan and an expansion project that will level the small community.
The demonstration was organized by 350.org, the Sierra Club, the Michigan Coalition Against Tar Sands, the Northwest Indiana Federation of Interfaith Organizations and other groups who say the $3.8 billion expansion of the BP Whiting facility threatens the health of the community.
The oil giant recently began demolition of some homes in the small community of about 300 people, a national historic site originally built by industrialist Clayton Mark, which is surrounded on all sides by the refinery. The $3.8 billion facility is the second largest tar sands processing plant in the United States.
“We’re seeing a rededication to industrialization down here,” said Thomas Frank, a 50-year-old resident of East Chicago. “It’s a rededication to our fossil fuel past at a time when we need to move past that. Instead of moving forward with renewable energies, we’ve doubled down on old energies and old industries. We’re really trying to challenge that.”
Amidst chants of “We Live Here!” and “Save Marktown, Stop BP!”, Kim Rodriguez told the group, “I don’t like the idea of what they’re doing to our air or our water, but my main purpose for being here is because they want to buy up the homes in our community.”
Rodriguez said she wants the city and the state to preserve the community.
“My grandparents were here, my mother and father. I raised my children here. My granddaughter lives in the house over there,” she said.
A spokesperson for the company told ABC-7 last week that it was working with homeowners who voluntarily sold their homes and that 50 property owners contacted BP “expressing an interest to sell.” Rodriguez though, said that while the company claims it is not pressuring residents, the demolition is in fact, a form of coercion.
“Every time they purchase a building and tear it down, that puts them one step closer to Marktown no longer being here,” she lamented.
Demonstrators also say they want more answers and a more thorough investigation by the EPA into recent spills in Lake Michigan. In March, a malfunction at the refinery dumped an estimated 39 barrels of oil into Lake Michigan.
“They didn’t really let us know what went in the water specifically,” said Dave Ellis, a volunteer leader with the Indiana Sierra Club. “The public deserves to know precisely what chemicals
were released into our water and air and what chemicals still remain in our drinking water.”
Ellis said that air quality issues in the area were a concern because of flaring, the process of burning off gas released from pressure valves at the plant.
“If there is ever an issue with the plant, under perfect conditions if everything’s working well, there’s some pollution. But what if something happens, that’s what we’re worried about," he explained.
Here is more from Ellis on the issue:
Earlier this year, the company began work on a fence-line monitoring program, which is supposed to give air quality readings, as part of a Clean Air Act lawsuit, but critics say that it doesn't go far enough.
“We don’t think they’re doing a good enough job with it. How far does it go?” Ellis asked.
The March spill from the BP refinery isn’t the first time tar sands oil poured into a body of water in the Midwest. In 2010, a pipeline operated by Enbridge Energy burst, causing at least 1 million gallons of oil to flow into the Kalamazoo River. It was one of the largest and most expensive spills in United States history.
“It is indisputable that if a much larger pipeline like KXL were built, running through the nation’s breadbasket region, that the health, livelihoods, and food of millions of U.S. families would be put at risk,” said Laura Sabransky, a Chicago Sierra Club volunteer.
Demonstrators said that while the facility and its expansion brings jobs to the area, it shouldn’t come at the expense of the health of residents. “It’s a tough scenario because it’s a very challenging time,” Frank said. “We just saw a recession. For Northwest Indiana, they saw this as a positive project. In terms of our energy policy and our resilience moving forward, it’s going to be a hard challenge with this kind of dedication to fossil fuels."
“We are subsidizing our own deaths,” Reverend Cheryl Rivera, executive director of the Northwest Indiana Federation of Interfaith Organizations told the group gathered in the park. “Why should we have to choose between good jobs and good soil, good air and good water?”
Endridge/BP Image: Daniel Farone; Camera: John Robb