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As Marathon Refinery lockout nears 100-day mark, a worker describes extreme danger to community

By staff |
April 29, 2021
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Locked out oil refinery workers have been on the picket lines for nearly 100 day
Locked out oil refinery workers have been on the picket lines for nearly 100 days. (Fight Back! News/Staff)

St. Paul Park, MN - As of May 2, the Teamsters who work at the Marathon Refinery in Saint Paul Park, Minnesota will have been locked out for 100 days after a one-day strike unless a deal is reached before then to settle their contract negotiations. At this writing, April 28, by all accounts neither side appears ready to back down any time soon.

The Teamsters have cited safety as one of the major reasons they went on strike in January. In 2018 a large explosion rocked the city of Superior, Wisconsin at the Husky Refinery and caused mass evacuations of much of the city. Teamsters point out that the Marathon Refinery uses similar chemicals and that they are trying to protect the Twin Cities metro community from an accident like the one that happened in Superior.

Dave Marlatt is one of the locked-out members of Teamster Local 120. He and his wife Amber, along with their two young children, live 1.8 miles from the refinery, well with in the range of immediate danger in an accident.

Fight Back! spoke to him in length about what exactly is at stake in these contract negotiations and the following is some of what we learned from him.

Marlatt said that along with keeping the community in general safe, he is fighting to keep his family safe too. He said that a few years ago Marathon brought in an old SDA (solvent de-asphalting) unit that they bought from somewhere in Texas. When you buy an old unit like that you do not have to pull all of the permits you would need to install a new unit, so they did this to save money and cut steps. Dave said “It’s not a good unit. It requires constant operator care.”

At the same time as Marathon added this SDA unit that requires extra care to keep operational and safe, it is also trying to take away the designated SDA operator so there would no longer be someone assigned just to provide that constant care to the unit. They instead want someone to look after the SDA unit and another unit at the same time. To make things worse, Marathon now wants to also have that operator who oversees the two units take on the running of a boiler unit on top of the already hard to manage work load.

Marlatt said, “So when something goes wrong in two places, what do you want us to do? They say they have procedures, but those procedures aren’t there. We need a dedicated SDA operator.”

One thing that stood out in the conversation was just how large these units are. In some cases, he was talking about machines in terms of how many football fields across or tall they were, so the travel time just to get between units in an emergency is a serious factor.

In this work, you need to do everything correctly every single time. Even one mistake could spell disaster. Now as Marathon tries to save expenses by cutting corners it is increasingly hard to ensure that safety that the community depends on and should be able to take for granted. Marlatt stated, “We are fighting to keep stuff safe and running how it has been. But now the company wants us to do more work with less people.”

Since getting his job at Marathon, Marlatt has had to put out fires three times. He described two of them as “small” and one as “large.” For context, the small ones still involved units measured in football field lengths, but were contained more easily and did not spread to multiple units.

Marlatt said that when a fire starts, you have to be careful. You cannot just pour water on it, or even extinguish the fire in some cases, because of many dangerous factors beyond a conventional fire. Iron sulfide is created, which lights on fire when exposed to air. In one of the fires, they managed to contain the iron sulfide, but that was only possible because of the immediate response time, which is being put in jeopardy by management's plan to have workers look after multiple units.

If a fire is not immediately contained it can spread to multiple units which could result in a much more serious disaster. In a worst-case scenario Marlatt says that it could put life in jeopardy for a distance of 30 to 50 miles around. The refinery sits in a suburb of Saint Paul so millions of Minnesotans could be put in grave danger in a disaster scenario. Some of the possible dangers include not just the blast or fire itself, but also formation of an extremely hazardous cloud, which could waft over the Minneapolis-Saint Paul metro area. That cloud would contain chemicals like hydrofluoric acid, which is capable of boiling your skin off of your body on contact. Additionally, the cloud would have the potential to fatally attack the calcium in a person’s body.

“To be honest, this just barely scratches the surface of it,” said Marlatt.

Meanwhile, against the backdrop of the lockout in Saint Paul Park, ExxonMobil says they intend to lock out refinery workers in Beaumont, Texas as of May 1 if they have still not reached a contract settlement in their own negotiations with members of United Steel Workers (USW) Local 13-243. The union contract at the Beaumont refinery has been expired since January 11. The existing contract requires a 75-day notice before any lockout or strike. Both the union and the company did issue 75-day notices on February 15 and now the company has taken it a step further, saying they plan to go ahead with the lockout on May 1, rejecting the union’s request to extend the contract for one year while they keep bargaining. Like the Teamsters at Marathon, the USW members at the Beaumont refinery say they are fighting for the safety of the community.

When and how these disputes between safety and larger profits will be settled remains to be seen, but it was clear that the workers do not intend to back down and allow the community to be put in danger.

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