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Keystone XL stories: Theresa Landrum

Posted Dec. 16, 2010 / Posted by: Kelly Trout

Theresa Landrum, 56, is a native Detroiter and has lived on the same block in the city's southwest side since she was born. Her neighborhood, known by its 48217 zip code, is the most polluted area in the state of Michigan and is home to some of the most toxic facilities imaginable. Yet expansion of this dirty industry continues -- Marathon Oil's Detroit refinery, for example, is planning a massive $2 billion expansion to increase its capacity for refining oil from Canada's tar sands.

Theresa is a seasoned veteran of the movement to combat environmental injustice in her community. This issue is close to her heart as she is a sufferer of cancer along with her parents. According to a Detroit Free Press article about 48217, Theresa attended city council meetings to oppose the expansion of the Marathon oil refinery in 2007 while she underwent chemotherapy, wearing a scarf to cover her bald head.

The story of 48217 is both a story of hardship and misery caused by dirty industry, and a story of struggle and resilience, as the community fights for survival and to pave a new path toward a clean and healthy future.

The following is an interview between Theresa and Friends of the Earth about her experiences with the oil refinery in her community and how the Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline would impact it.

You can read more stories from the front lines of the fight to stop the pipeline here.

Tell me about yourself and your community. How did you come to the 48217 neighborhood?

My family came to 48217 from the South in the 1940s. We originally lived in Ecorse but I came up in River Rouge -- those are two suburbs right on the outskirts of southwest Detroit, surrounded by heavy industry. I attended Southwestern High School in a neighborhood called Del Ray.

Back in the day Del Ray was very vibrant community made up of Hungarians, Poles, Caucasians, African-Americans and Hispanics. There were bakeries, cleaners, stores, and mom-and-pop businesses. But over the years, the residential community started to diminish as industry began to encroach more and more on residential properties. By the late 80s and 90s the community of Del Ray had been decimated.

When I was in kindergartener they built the I-75 expressway right beside my school, straight through the community. My friends had to move, houses were taken, and the wooded area and wetland beyond the residential area where there were rabbits, raccoons, beavers, frogs and so on all went away when I-75 came in and divided us into two different communities.

With I-75 came more industry. My family was in the automotive industry. I worked at General Motors. My father was a subcontractor to Great Lakes Steel, now US Steel, which is a refining company. We had various industries in our community. But unbeknownst to the community, that thought the residential population was growing, emissions from industry were growing even faster. And many of the residents in the community -- older and younger -- started developing illnesses.

I really started noticing things when my mother became ill. I was nine and by the time I was in high school my mother was diagnosed with throat cancer. She had her voice box removed in 1972, and then in 1984 she was diagnosed with parotid gland cancer (cancer of a salivary gland in the face) and eventually they removed that. And finally in 1986 she was diagnosed with lung cancer.

I started to notice various young people were getting cancer. Our neighbor Miss Lucille, she died of cancer. One of our friends, Rita, who was in her 20s, she died of cancer. Then another young lady Anita, she died of cancer. Delbert, he had a tumor in his neck that grew so big it looked like he had two heads. He was in college and they had to send him home and he eventually died from the cancer. Despite these things I hadn't yet put it together.

All my life we knew something was wrong. When you came to our community it stunk and we were identified by the smell! And because of the existing smell and overwhelming number of factories, other companies realized that they had fertile ground to move in. Just a few years ago we got a composting facility; we already had Zug Island, which causes odors. We got a cement factory and a glue factory and they both cause odors. We have all these different factories and industries that are causing odors. Now we have two asphalt companies, Cadillac Asphalt and Marathon Asphalt, and we're going to get a third asphalt factory called Great Lakes Petroleum. They told the community and the state government that it's going to be a storage facility, but the company's statements say they're going to be blending and mixing according to the specifications of the customer, which to us constitutes manufacturing.

It sometimes feels like we have more industry than we have residential property. We even have a company called Inland Waters that handles toxic waste disposal, right next door to people's homes!

And then we have Severstal, formerly Rouge Steel, which supplies the huge Ford factory on the border of our community. My father and my brothers used to work with the contractors there tearing down the coke ovens. You know what coke ovens lead to? Lung cancer. My father died of lung cancer. My mother died of lung cancer. A friend of mine was just diagnosed with lung cancer.

Then we have a high rate of children in our community being born with asthma and upper respiratory diseases. Many of our older people have asthma. Many people are being diagnosed with heart disease. We have various illnesses that are running rampant in our community. And we feel that it's at a higher rate in our small community than in the whole nation. We asked for a cancer cluster study, we've asked for health impact studies to be done, and to no avail.

That being said, we have a lady by the name of Mrs. Leonard doing research for us. She found this study by Stuart Batterman that shows a direct correlation between learning disabilities in children and diesel fume emissions. And our school, the only Detroit public school left in our community after several other schools had been closed and torn down, was moved closer to I-75 and across from the Marathon Oil Refinery. Our children have been put in a precarious situation.

Instead of calling it "tar sands," they call it "heavy oil." That's just industry trying to make it more palatable than saying "heavy, dirty, nasty, polluting, poisonous tar sands." Those people that are up there around the Kalamazoo River, where they had the oil spill, they have air quality monitors. [Enbridge] found that the benzene in the air was so high that the only thing they could do was tell the people, "We will pay for you to move." But down here in southwest Detroit, we've been living with [all these] companies that are emitting benzene, sulfur chloride and hydrogen sulfide for 40-50 years. Yet one thing they keep saying is that their emissions are below regulation levels.

What we want to know is, what is the cumulative impact of these various industries? You have Marathon emitting known carcinogens. You have Severstal Steel, and they're emitting metallic particles. Then you have this other company and they're emitting something, and this other company and they're emitting something. And all this stuff is mixing into one big gigantic, poisonous, deadly combination. And nobody is monitoring! No state official, no city official, no federal official, regulatory organization or agencies. What is the cumulative impact of all these poisons being emitted into the air? What is their impact on human life? Our quality of life here in southwest Detroit has been greatly, greatly diminished. Our lifespan has been greatly diminished. We often can't open our windows. And even when you don't open your windows, the stuff permeates into the sewers and into our homes and makes our houses stink!

Our fight came in when Marathon bought a piece of property on the residential side of Fort street for the contractors park their cars, as well as opening up a route for the Marathon oil trucks to come through on Pleasant Street. And when they built this water pumping station, to accommodate the overflow from rain water as well as the Marathon expansion, it just disrupted the community altogether. The homes on Liddlesdale, Liebold and Patricia roads were ground zero. Those people woke up one day with a fence against their garages, and they couldn't get in or out. The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department allowed the contractors that were building the pumping station to buttress a fence right at their garages, citing a law that says that the homeowner owns one half of the alley and the neighboring building owns the other half. We called out the council people and the news media to come down and see what they did. Marathon eventually relented and took the fence back about six feet, just enough space so that the people could get their cars into their garages.

We had meeting after meeting with the contractor and Detroit Water and Sewerage Department. We were really fighting for our lives and advocating that they do something to help the people. Our contention was that the groundwater they hit was polluted, and so the soil they dug up was polluted too. These toxins were being walked and blown into people's houses. You couldn't open your front door or your windows because the dust was blowing in. Eventually the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department and Michigan Department of Transportation bought out about 30 homes and moved the people, closed down Liddesdale and now it's used as a dumping site.

They're tearing up the sewers because they have to replace those along with the replacement of the pumping station to give us more adequate drainage. But as they do that, their trucks are barreling down Liddesdale and Liebold and kicking up dust. People can't breathe, they're getting headaches, and burning eyes, people are having asthma attacks and respiratory troubles. I contend that it's the pollution, and that the area is a brownfield.

I heard once that a former mayor of Detroit declared the entire city a brownfield (an abandoned or underused industrial or commercial facility open for re-use, but often hampered by contamination). Have you ever heard that?

No, but I believe it. We're nothing but a brownfield. Look at all the auto factories, and tire factories and processing facilities that were here. None of this land has been remediated.

And I really believe that the processing of this dirty tar sands oil is going to be more detrimental to the community than anything ever before. You're talking about people dying of cancer at a higher rate, hearing problems, eye problems, lung problems, leg and liver problems, all of this can be connected to pollution.

What is the 48217 community doing to fight against the expansion of dirty industry and the Marathon oil refinery, and what are the opportunities you see in the fight?

We found out there was a class action lawsuit that Dearborn and Melvindale had filed. But because of our proximity to Marathon, the 48217 community was not included in the lawsuit. Once we found out about it though, the judge allowed us to be added in. Then we had a blackout, and during the blackout there were emissions from two tanks at Marathon. And we understand that there was a big class action lawsuit filed for that, but we were not included and we've been trying to seek the services of environmental lawyers to help us file the suit against these polluting industries.

So we've been appealing to our city council, and our state representative and we have been making our concerns heard to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and the Environmnet (MDNRE). We invited Mr. Alan Walts from the EPA to tour our community along with the MDNRE, to see just what the residents are enduring on a daily basis. We're trying to reach out to anybody that will help us stop these industries from coming in and encroaching on us. But as I mentioned before Great Lakes Petroleum is petitioning to build a factory here and there's going to be a public hearing for another storage facility. Marathon has received permission to expand. So we're trying to find lawyers that will help us file a suit against them. We've asked for a moratorium on industry, but the city said that cannot be done. But I think there is a way.

I'm working with my State Representative Rashida Talibi to find a way that we can put a moratorium on industry and stop them from further encroaching and expanding. That's what I'm trying to do, I'm working with social justice groups and the Sierra Club and we're trying to find ways for people to come in and help us. We're doing our own sampling and sending them to independent labs to be tested. And we have found very high levels of carcinogens in our samples but our own MDNRE is disputing our findings.

I'm telling you, this is a fight to the end.

What inspires you to keep fighting?

What inspires me to keep fighting is my love for my community and my vested interest in this community. I have lost family and friends to cancer. I'm a cancer survivor. My friend is in the hospital and just had a lung removed, due to cancer.

There are opportunities to expose this industry. When the Enbridge oil spill happened in Kalamazoo people found out that it was due to corrosion of the pipes. Same with the BP oil spill – it exposed the problems within the industry. More people are becoming aware of what these large corporations are doing to the ecosystem and to human life. I see opportunity in more people becoming aware and joining the fight to stop the tar sands. More businesses are also joining the fight to stop tar sands too, and that's an opportunity for us too.

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