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By Michael Lachenmeyer
The oil refineries on the south bank of the Arkansas River are a familiar sight to most Tulsans. If you go to the Gathering Place or drive along the highway headed south from downtown, there’s a good chance you’ll see one of them. Like Route 66 or the Blue Dome, the refineries have been around so long that they’re part of the heart and soul of the city.
Don’t believe me? Go take a drive around Tulsa. If you go to the fairgrounds, you’ll see the Golden Driller. If you go to the public library, you’ll see glass jars of gas. Even the city’s seal has an oil rig on it. All of this bears testament to the fact that in the early 20th century, an oil rush created this city. Ever since then, Tulsa’s identity has been tied to its love for black gold.
Yet, love is dangerous. When we love things, it becomes hard to see them objectively. Everything in life, every choice, every person, every institution, has good and bad in some measure, and Tulsa’s refineries are no different.
HF Sinclair shields pollutions through donations
Since 2009, they’ve been under the management of HF Sinclair, a Dallas-based corporation that manufactures petroleum products all across the United States. According to Fortune Magazine, they’re currently the 197th largest corporation in the country, with annual revenues totalling over $18 billion and annual profits of more than $558 million.
According to HF Sinclair, in Tulsa itself, they have approximately 550 employees and 250 contractors on their payroll. The profits from their operation help generate tax revenue for the city and state and every year they make numerous donations to local causes such as Webster Highschool, the YMCA summer camp, and the annual Juneteenth festival in Greenwood. In April, HF Sinclair donated $1 million dollars to help build the Williams Crossing pedestrian bridge at the Gathering Place.
These charitable donations are welcome, but for a company of HF Sinclair’s size, they’re a drop in the bucket compared to what their investors and executives are taking home. Especially when one considers the hidden costs most Tulsans unknowingly pay to have them here.
Tulsa oil refineries violate clean air, clean water
For example, according to the American Lung Association “if you live in Tulsa county the air you breathe may put your health at risk”. That is because the ozone levels here are higher than normal.
Most people know of ozone because of the ozone layer, which protects Earth’s surface from the worst effects of solar radiation. However, ozone can also form on the ground level as traffic exhaust and smoke from power plants and refineries bake together in the Sun.
Tulsa’s problem with ozone and air quality goes back years. Today’s levels are slightly elevated, but from 1998 to 2000 ozone levels reached approximately 14 times what the American Lung Association considers safe. From 1996 to 2015, they were consistently elevated. In 2020, the HF Sinclair refineries released approximately 143,134 pounds of ozone precursor chemicals, according to their Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) filings.
Unfortunately, ozone is just the tip of the iceberg. According to the EPA, HF Sinclair’s Tulsa refineries have had significant violations of the Clean Air Act for three of the past five years, resulting in fines totalling $70,000. As of the EPA’s last report on airborne pollution at HF Sinclair–Tulsa in June 2022, there were still “high priority violations” of the CAA ongoing at both refineries.
Meanwhile, HF Sinclair’s record with the Clean Water Act (CWA) is little better. Since 2017, the EPA has fined HF Sinclair $37,900 for illegal wastewater dumping at its Tulsa refineries. As with the CAA violations, these fines have done little to change HF Sinclair’s behavior. According to the EPA’s last monitoring report published in March, the East Holly Refinery is currently operating in violation of the CWA.
City leaders need to step up
It’s important to understand this problem is not new. Instead, it’s part of a culture going back decades. For example, in 2006, the Department of Justice reached a plea deal with HF Sinclair’s predecessor, Sinclair Oil, for $5.5 million and sentenced two of its former managers to community service and six months’ house arrest.
Their crime? According to the Department of Justice, “between January 2000 and March 2004, the Sinclair refinery discharged an average of 1.1 million gallons of treated wastewater per day into the Arkansas River… on numerous occasions in 2002 and 2003, Sinclair directed employees to limit wastewater discharges in order to manipulate the result of required bio-testing.”
In the end, regular Tulsans are paying the price for these polluting oil refineries with the ninth highest number of asthma patients per capita in the country and the second highest cancer rate in the state. These health issues then fuel existing inequities within the city, further dividing rich and poor Black, Brown and White. According to Tulsa’s 2021 Equality Indicators Report, “south Tulsans live two times longer past retirement age then north Tulsans.” That disparity is appalling.
Yet, city leaders have turned a blind eye to the issue. They seem more eager to get corporate sponsorships than challenge the status quo, but like it or not, change is coming. With the world growing warmer year after year, the days of oil refineries are fading fast. As floods, tornadoes, heatwaves, and freak snow storms buffet Tulsa, I challenge the city to adapt or fall behind.
Every year, Tulsa’s Mayor gives a “State of the City Address”. In Mayor Bynum’s 2021 speech, he said he wanted to make Tulsa a “world-class city”, yet that hope will remain a pipe dream while Tulsans lack clean air or water and while city leaders lack the vision to dream of better.
Michael Lachenmeyer was born in Lake Forest, California and raised in Wilbraham, Massachusetts. He attended Loyola University Chicago where he earned a bachelor’s degree in political science and a bachelor’s degree in international relations. He minored in history. In 2021, he moved to Tulsa to work for City Year at Nathan Hale Highschool. For the past year, he’s served as a Hub Coordinator for Tulsa’s chapter of the Sunrise Movement. Today he is a graduate student attending the University of Chicago.