Theresa Landrum still lives on the same block where she was born in southwest Detroit, surrounded by an industrial hub of polluting industries. The massive oil Marathon refinery is Landrum's not-so-friendly neighbor.
Landrum believes the refineries are responsible for the cancer and illness in her family and neighborhood, and the problem will become worse as the Marathon refinery expands to process more tar sands crude, which contains more pollutants.
A trained journalist, Landrum stopped working full-time in the early 1990s to help her mother when she was diagnosed with cancer. "My mom had four different cancers," Landrum says. "First she had cancer of the throat, then the face. In 1986 she was diagnosed with lung cancer but survived. Then she developed cancer of the other lung and died in 1996."
Landrum's father - a one-time Marathon Oil employee - also died of cancer. Landrum is convinced that the toxic environment of her neighborhood contributed to their illnesses and subsequent deaths. "Ten people on my block have died of cancer in the last decade," Landrum explains. "We have a lot of pneumonia, too-one of my brothers died of it-and lots of asthma. All the little kids in the house across the street have asthma, and their father just died of cancer."
Landrum was horrified when Marathon announced plans to build a $2.2 billion expansion to process tar sands crude-the world's dirtiest oil. "When we found out Marathon was bringing in nasty tar sands from Canada, my first reaction was 'Lord have mercy. Where can we go?'"
She started researching what kinds of chemicals would be emitted by the new tar sands facility and the effects they can have on human health. "We found terrible things. Carcinogens, carbon monoxide, benzene and toluene, which harm the nervous system, methyl ethyl ketone, which can cause blindness. A lot of really bad stuff."
In 2007, Landrum herself was diagnosed with cancer. While undergoing chemotherapy and radiation, she continued to attend Detroit City Council meetings to protest the tar sands expansion of the Marathon refinery. That fight was lost.
Landrum's cancer is now in remission, although a recent chest x-ray showed severe damage to her lungs, and she is undergoing tests to determine the cause of an enlarged thyroid and a goiter in her neck. Undaunted, she continues to fight to stop tar sands oil from further poisoning her home.
"Sometimes," Landrum says, "it seems like these companies put dollars above human life."