Detroiters vs. Marathon, people vs. Tar Sands

Letters read “48217 is dirtiest zip in MI.”WW photo: Martha Grevatt

Letters read “48217 is dirtiest zip in MI.”
WW photo: Martha Grevatt

Sept. 21 was a national day of action to “Draw the Line at Tar Sands.” Demonstrations in hundreds of U.S. and Canadian cities protested the extraction, refining and transport of “dirty oil” from Canada’s tar sands. “Draw the Line” actions opposed the construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline, which would carry oil from Northern Canada to Texas.

Tar sands oil is “dirty” for a number of reasons. The climate impact of this oil is three to four times greater than that of conventional fossil fuels. If all of the carbon contained in Canada’s tar sands oil is released to the atmosphere the impact will be devastating: “game over” for the planet, according to chief NASA climate scientist Dr. James Hansen. The immediate impact on local communities near refineries — many of them low-income communities of color — has been a spike in cancer, asthma and other life-threatening conditions. Dirty oil contaminates water, air and soil. The energy monopolies have flagrantly violated the sovereignty of Indigenous lands in Canada.

The Detroit Coalition Against Tar Sands demonstrated outside the Marathon Oil refinery, which refines tar sands oil. DCATS has been protesting the piles of the refining byproduct known as “petcoke” stored uncovered along the Detroit River, sickening residents. The owners of the piles are the notorious right-wing Koch brothers. Under public pressure from residents, activists and state Rep. Rashida Tlaib, the brothers agreed to remove the petcoke.

The petcoke is not the only concern of Southwest Detroiters. Marathon’s release of toxic pollutants has made the surrounding neighborhood the most polluted zip code in Michigan. The level of contaminants is 143 times that of the zip code in the median range. African-American residents spoke at the rally about their family members who are dying of cancer.

DCATS members also carried signs reading “Remember the Kalamazoo,” a reference to a July 2010 pipeline rupture that caused the largest land-based oil spill in U.S. history. Three years later, the Kalamazoo River is still contaminated by 180,000 gallons of tar sands oil. The pipeline was owned by Enbridge. Now eleven members of Michigan Coalition Against Tar Sands face charges — with four activists charged with felonies — stemming from civil disobedience at an Enbridge pipeline construction site in Stockbridge.