Once upon a time in land not so different than our own there was city built along a mighty iconic river with towering mountains to the west and never ending prairie to the east. It was the largest city in the state.
During one of the waning days of summer a council of citizens, who were elected by the residents of the city to make decisions for the good of the people, gathered for their weekly meeting. They had an important decision to make: whether or not to allow medical marijuana shops to open within their fair city.
Citizens came in droves and lined up to speak. Many gave heartfelt and compelling testimony about the ways medical marijuana improved their quality of life, helped them kick opioid addiction, and made cancer treatment bearable.
And then one man stood. We shall call this man Jeff. Jeff ran an organization in a nearby town that protected the citizens of the state from imaginary things. We shall call this organization the Family Foundation. Jeff was nervous but he steeled himself for his testimony.
He thought, "If not now, when? If not me, who?"
Jeff walked up to the podium and cleared his throat. He told the council that he knew a man, a man who lived in a city not so far away, who had trouble selling a commercial building because it was next to a medical marijuana dispensary. He paused for dramatic effect.
"The smell," he said, "we have to consider the smell."
"Nailed it," Jeff thought to himself, with a little fist pump he hoped no one noticed.
Some members of the council solemnly nodded as he spoke. "Yes," they thought, "Jeff makes a good point, we must consider the smell. The residents of our town should not be asked to smell the smell of weed if they don’t want to smell the weed. And what if someone at some point is a little inconvenienced when they try to sell their commercial building?"
"How much can we ask of this community," they thought?
As the council considered the wise words of Jeff, outside, there were three nearby oil refineries along the banks of the mighty river. Occasionally, or maybe frequently, those refineries flared off some gas and stuff, the smell of chemicals and sulfur so ubiquitous that most citizens didn’t notice it anymore. The smells of the refineries were famous throughout the state.
Jeff continued. He spoke of the evils of the marijuana. It is a gateway drug. It is addictive. Addiction is bad, said Jeff. If you allow this, you, the government, are encouraging an addiction.
As the council members considered the evils of addiction, thousands of citizens were in one of the 127 casinos playing at one of the 2,229 gaming machines within the city limits. These citizens weren’t at the council meeting — because they were gambling — but that’s only because they were certain that the council was looking out for their best interests. They weren’t addicted or anything. Also, in this community, there were 82 painkiller prescriptions for every 100 people.
One council member thought about the stiff whiskey he was going to have when he got out of this interminably long meeting.
Jeff went on.
"Marijuana tears at the moral fabric of our society," he said. "It destroys families. And the children, he said, we must protect the children."
As the council members considered the moral fabric of their society, outside there were around 30, maybe a little more, maybe a little less, “spas” and “massage parlors” in this town. They were open 24-hours-a-day, 7-days-a-week and were located all over town; on main roads, in shopping centers and one was even across from a local high school. The windows were darkened and the neon lights never shut off.
These spas were places where men, no matter their standing in the community — doctors, lawyers, politicians, truckers, mechanics — could go and pay for a hand job, or maybe a blow job or maybe even sexual intercourse with young Asian women whenever they wanted. Ride your bike or park your car a little bit down the street and throw on a hat and you’re good to go.
Many of these women have their passports taken, their visas confiscated and are forced under the threat of violence to have sex with strange men. They are moved around to keep them uncertain and scared about their surroundings.
These women are slaves, they are the face of human trafficking.
If a man had enough money, he could buy a 14-year-old girl for $900 for the first hour, $800 for the second and if he wanted to keep her for three or more hours, the price keeps going down.
But this story is coming to a close boys and girls. In the end, seven out of the eleven council members determined it was in the best interest of the community not to allow medical marijuana shops within the city limits. And we were all saved, oops, I mean the people of this imaginary city were all saved from a smell of marijuana and most importantly, the horrendous impacts of people feeling better by smoking or eating pot if they have cancer or another disease.
Jeff was pleased. He could now focus all of his efforts on making people scared of transgender people. Don't thank him though, he's just doing his moral duty to the citizens of this state.
If you want more information about human trafficking and what you can do to help, you can start with the Polaris Project.
At 5:30 p.m., on a frigid winter night in January of 2013, staff from the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and Arch Coal employees arrived at the tribal government building in Lame Deer on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation to hold a public hearing on the scope of study for the environmental impact statement for the proposed Otter Creek coal mine.
To get to the front entrance they had to walk by 150 Northern Cheyenne tribal members, off-reservation white ranchers and a handful of environmental allies from around the state huddled together around a small fire. Otto and Martin Braided Hair drummed and sang Northern Cheyenne traditional songs.
The DEQ, like many government agencies these days, decided to host an “open house” instead of a public hearing. An open house is when the agency sets up a couple of booths and individuals walk around from table to table and ask questions of agency staff. Then, if you have a comment, you walk to a secluded part of the room where a court reporter is sitting. It’s awful.
In a real public hearing, the community has an opportunity to hear each other talk about the impacts of a project and ask questions. You learn from what others are saying. It sparks ideas. It helps you understand other’s viewpoints. In an open house people are isolated from each other. There is power in public hearings and they are foundational to democracy. I love them. All of them. If I could go to public hearings every day I would.
I was hooked the moment I read this paragraph in Last Stand at Rosebud Creek,
"This was their moment of decision: a public hearing may not have much effect in the halls of legislation, but it uncompromisingly defines the motives and emotions of a community and, even more clearly, the beliefs of the individual. You speak; you make yourself known; you are no longer a bystander in conflict."
Open House or Public Hearing?
At 6:00 p.m. the open house was supposed to start but no one from the public was inside the tribal building. The DEQ staff was starting to get a nervous. They walked outside and told us that if no one came in they would close down the meeting and leave.
Shortly after that announcement the assembled group followed Tom Mexican Cheyenne, the designated speaker, into the tribal building. We brought our own microphone and speaker system. Tom politely informed the DEQ and representatives from Arch Coal that we would have a real public hearing and they were welcome to stay and hear what the community thought about the proposed coal mine on the nation’s borders.
Here's what Tom said.
“I have been asked to be the spokesperson for our people here who are wanting to express what they see is happening in southeastern Montana. And first of all I want to welcome our visitors. The people that have come from Helena and other places and probably the company that is planning on doing the development here. We are here as people from southeastern Montana and also as people who have relatives and ancestors who passed on and gave their lives and their family’s lives and their children’s lives for this land. Just about a week ago we had a run from Ft. Robinson, NE to here. Young people running in memory of our ancestors that didn’t want to stay in Oklahoma anymore and wanted to come back to their homeland. We consider southeastern Montana, this area here, as our homeland even though we don’t physically own it on paper which is the way you look at the ownership of land. We don’t own any land, when we leave this earth, we don’t take it with us, it stays here. But we also believe we take care of it.
We heard about what you did in Broadus and Ashland, how you set up stations and I just want to say that when you come here, you are coming to where we live and I’m going to ask you that you respect that. We don’t talk to microphones, we talk to people. We want our people to be able to hear what is being said and this is the way we’d like you to conduct this. We want our people to tell you how they feel about what you are planning on doing here, in this country.
This is the way we’d like it to be done. Because we have elder people here and other people who have something really important to say that needs to be heard by everybody and not just one microphone and one individual sitting here switching it on and off. We don’t want that to happen here and we want you to respect our ways. This is why we are here.”
A two hour open house turned into a five hour public hearing.
At the end of the evening, Brad Sauer a white rancher from off the reservation stood up to the microphone.
"I want to say to my neighbors the Northern Cheyennes thank you for showing me what free speech looks like and sounds like."
The crowd cheered.
What can we learn from this story?
If you take my recounting of this event at face value, you might assume I’m saying people should take over public hearings. If you think that, you’re wrong. One of the big problems with sharing this, a story previously was unknown to most people, is it is just one small piece of a extremely large puzzle.
It doesn’t teach you much unless you know the larger strategy and story behind stopping the modern iterations of the Otter Creek coal mine and Tongue River Railroad.
On that cold night in January, in the middle of what most people would think of as “nowhere,” 150 people showed up for their land and community. It was a night where people took a little control back from our government and industry.
However, this action wouldn't have made sense if we hadn't already been participating in the government process for the previous five years. We were all commenting, attending agency meetings, lobbying politicians, reading hundreds of pages of documents, holding events and making sure we knew what was happening. We had been building support for years and making sure that when we did something like this that we knew we could pull it off. We weren't worried that it wouldn't work. It wasn’t a social media stunt. It wasn’t for random attention, it was to show the state of Montana what they were up against; a community was united and we weren’t going to let them push us around.
We were showing Arch Coal that it was hostile territory.
This story is about a tactic but it can’t be separated from the larger strategy. The work east of Billings teaches me that real organizing is about building relationships between people and not always about numbers and that the most impactful organizing is not general and national but specific and local. It is about developing a long term strategy for particular goals and being resilient. It’s about working with people who feel accountable to each other and not about name-calling and exclusion.
Organizing isn't just about getting people to protests and rallies or signing petitions (even though sometimes those are important tactics), it is about helping people become competent leaders in our democracy.
One is transactional the other is transformational.
Why am I telling this story now? Because I’ve realized the only way we can continue to move forward is if we share our stories about winning and losing, about what works and what doesn’t, about the nuances of organizing work. You never get that information from a lot of organizations so people looking to become more active in government don't realize what it takes or where to start. You don't see a lot of people who are part of campaigns or groups talking about the failures.
Just wait till I get to those.
There are a lot of interesting lessons that can be learned from eastern Montana and from great organizers in the rural west. What does it look like to have a people from different backgrounds, cultures and political views working together for a common goal? How does it happen? I certainly don’t have all the answers, in fact, I don’t have any. But I have ideas.
I’ve been hesitant to share these stories before because organizing is about personal relationships and therefore when I write about it I am inevitably dragging a lot of people along with me whether they like it or not. To help alleviate my anxiety about this, sometimes I will write in general terms to protect my relationships and my friends from unwanted attention and sometimes in very specific terms when it’s appropriate.
I’m going to write about what worked, what failed, the good that comes out of failure, what frustrates me about where I see organizing work going and where I’d like to see it moving. I’m also going to share some stories and insights from other rural organizers I admire and books organizers should be reading.
And if you, the reader, find anything that is helpful in what I’m writing then I’ll consider this effort worthwhile.
Welcome to the EOB organizing school.
According to an article in the Billings Gazette entitled "Is the Big Sky blowing smoke?" only water vapor comes out of the stacks at the three oil refineries around Billings and the sugar beet factory.
Ryan Wegner, manager of finance and public affairs at Phillips 66 Billings Refinery, explains why anyone who says the Big Sky is filled with anything other than steam is just blowing smoke. “Many folks see these plumes from our facility and believe they are something other than what they actually are — steam. In the process of refining oil into gasoline and diesel fuel, much heat is generated which then needs to be dissipated through heat exchangers,” he said. “We use a number of different types of heat exchangers at the refinery, and the white plumes rising from the refinery are steam from cooling towers.”
As someone who grew up in Billings and experienced the very well publicized air quality problems from those refineries and the now-shuttered coal-fired power plant, I was taken aback by the article. And you should be too because there are things called facts. The reporter and her editor apparently didn't think it was necessary to do research on what comes out of those stacks.
Yes, the white puffy clouds are steam but there are dozens of toxic chemicals, gases and heavy metals in that water vapor that you can't see.
What gets released into the air from the Billings oil refineries?
Luckily, because of our environmental regulations we don't have to guess what is coming out of the stacks. Each oil refinery is required to report their emissions to the DEQ and the EPA. Setting aside for a moment the problems with self reporting let's just look at what we know is being released into the air.
There are dozens and dozens of chemicals, gases and some heavy metals. In the chemical and gas category, the Billings' refineries release naphthalene, toluene, ammonia, anthracene, formaldehyde, vinyl chloride, hydrogen cyanide, carbon dioxide (CO2), sulphur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxide (NO2), carbon monoxide, methane, dioxins, hydrogen fluoride, chlorine and benzene. In the category of heavy metals we have lead, mercury, nickel compounds and zinc. These chemicals and gases are not benign. Most of them are known or suspected to cause cancer, birth defects, and seriously impact the environment.
SO2 and NOx have numerous adverse effects on human health and are significant contributors to acid rain, smog and haze. SO2 can pose respiratory illness risks, particularly to children, seniors and people with asthma. And it is no surprise to anyone who has lived in Billings for awhile that we have dealt with unsafe levels of SO2 emissions for decades from multiple sources. Refineries also emit greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change, as well as fugitive volatile organic compounds, known as VOCs.
As the article correctly pointed out, the releases of certain amounts of these chemicals and heavy metals are permitted under the Clean Air Act and other air quality regulations. What Billings residents should know is that how these exposure levels are determined is a highly controversial, political and uncertain process.
Regulatory agencies like the EPA and OSHA are charged with setting "safe" exposure levels for some chemicals by testing for effects at high concentrations and then they use statistical extrapolation and determine levels they deem safe for humans to be exposed to. However, study after study in communities that are around oil refineries have shown a higher incidence of certain types of cancer and respiratory problems.
Health impacts from living around oil refineries
According to the Environmental Health Journal, a peer reviewed scientific journal, the method used to develop safe exposure levels assumes that "if exposure goes up so do effects and if exposure goes down so will effects." However, recent studies have found that chemicals do not always follow this assumption and they may cause different effects on people at higher and lower levels.
Researchers in Sweden studied one of the largest and most modern oil refineries in Europe called Lysekil. They found that during the past 10 years, communities downwind of the refinery had twice as many cases of leukemia as would be expected based on the refinery's low emissions.
In the peer reviewed journal Cancer published by the American Cancer Society, a study found a higher cancer incidences rate in regions near refineries and plants that release benzene. There is a fascinating investigative report done by the Pulitzer prize winning Center for Public Integrity about the oil industry's attempt to downplay the impacts of benzene on human health. In 2015, the Exxon refinery released over 5,000 pounds of benzene, the Phillips 66 refinery in Laurel released 9,300 pounds of it and the CHS refinery released 3,813 pounds.
In the American Journal of Public Health researchers conducted a systematic review of 94 studies that examined residential proximity to environmental hazards, including oil refineries, in relation to adverse reproductive outcomes, childhood cancer, respiratory and cardiovascular conditions and other health problems.
In the 12 studies they reviewed on respiratory illness they found, "residential proximity to both stationary sources of air pollution (industries covered under the Toxic Release Inventory, National Emission Inventory, hazardous air pollutants, petroleum refineries, etc.), and, with a few exceptions, heavily trafficked roads, was significantly associated with asthma hospitalizations."
In another study in Environmental Health Perspective researchers found that short-term episodes of increased SO2 exposures from refinery stack emissions were associated with a higher number of asthma episodes in nearby children.
There are other types of emissions from the refineries the reporter failed to mention that are extremely concerning to most people that study pollution from oil refineries. Flaring of gases results in emissions of SO2, greenhouse gases, VOCs and hazardous air pollutants. There are also fugitive emissions of VOCs that can result from leaking valves and pumps. Those fugitive emissions can result in numerous health effects, including eye, nose and throat irritation, headaches, loss of coordination, nausea and damage to liver, kidney and the central nervous system.
At the end of the Billings Gazette article was this sentence,
"It’s a common misconception that the exhaust from the refineries and sugar beet factory are harming the environment."
No, this wasn't a quote from a public affairs person from the refinery, it was written by the reporter. The Billings Gazette needs to run a big correction on this puff piece. I don't expect a commentary on the pollution that comes out of the refineries but I do expect the Billings Gazette to report the facts, not spin from public affairs people.
If you are interested in the details of what each refinery said they emitted in 2015, I have included screenshots from the EPA's Toxic Release Inventory. Please click on each table to increase the size. UPDATE: On Monday April 3, Billings Gazette ran an Op-Ed by Eileen Morris, a long time Billings resident whose friend died from an asthma attack caused by SO2 pollution from the refineries.
Exxon Refinery - 2015 TRI Report. EPA's Toxic Release Inventory
Phillips 66 - 2015 TRI Report.
CHS Laurel Refinery - 2015 TRI Report.
And since the Sugar Beet Factory was also a part of the story, here is what they reported releasing in 2015.