David Brown and Lorenzo Feltrin, University of Warwick
Introducing the Global Petrochemical Map
In July this year, the Toxic Expertise team launched the pilot version of The Global Petrochemical Map. This public resource is a collaborative project that seeks to make petrochemical connections around the globe visible and to show the commonalities and differences in communities’ experiences of living and working in close proximity to petrochemical industrial sites. The Map features information on emission levels in the US and Europe, and a growing number of reports on specific petrochemical sites all over the world.
The Map aims to raise awareness among the public, the media and policy makers on health and environmental injustices related to the petrochemical industry and to provide a collective resource to fenceline communities as a) a systematic and easily accessible source of information; b) a platform to diffuse citizen-produced knowledge and insights; c) a networking tool to find points of convergence with other groups facing common challenges.
The cases were selected based on geographic representativeness, economic significance, and the intensity of community mobilisations and industrial disputes. In some cases, the researchers visited the documented petrochemical sites in fieldwork trips. Most reports, however, were compiled through online desk research on both primary and secondary sources. Although time and resource constraints did not allow carrying out extensive research for all cases, the case reports provide fundamental information on industrial production, fenceline communities, health and environmental impacts, community mobilisations, and industrial disputes for each petrochemical site. The reports will be further enriched by the first-hand contributions of community members and other people related to the industry. They may also be of interest for academics as a database for case studies on which to conduct more in-depth research.
In this article, we show how The Map can be fruitfully used to identify common trends and local specificities within the global petrochemical sector. In the first section we focus on environmental injustices and community mobilisations, while in the second section we deal with employment trends and industrial disputes.
Environmental Injustices and Community Mobilisations
Common environmental justice issues and forms of environmental justice activism can be identified through examining The Global Petrochemical Map. Focusing on the unequal spatiality of environmental degradation and hazards, environmental justice scholarship has become a major theoretical perspective through which to examine environmental challenges, conflicts and crises. With its origins in the United States in the 1980s, environmental justice analysis has indicated the uneven socio-spatial effects of industrial pollution, toxic waste and other forms of environmental degradation across multiple contexts, with low-income, minority and marginalised communities facing the heaviest environmental burdens.
The petrochemical industry has acted as a significant and controversial source of toxic pollution, notably of BTEX compounds (benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, xylene) and has been closely associated with numerous environmental injustices. The negative health, environmental and social impacts of the petrochemical industry have been well-documented in multiple contexts.[i] The Global Petrochemical Map demonstrates the numerous and heterogeneous environmental justice concerns associated with the petrochemical industry. These primarily relate to the environmental and health impacts of toxic pollution from refineries and petrochemical plants upon fenceline communities which bear everyday and attritional forms of ‘slow violence’.[ii] Although emerging in contextually-specific forms, the cases on The Global Petrochemical Map indicate common forms of environmental injustices and racism, whereby disproportionate and uneven burdens of toxic exposure from the petrochemical industry are borne by low-income, minority and marginalised communities and those who tend to be the most vulnerable and with the least power in society.
Notably, the Louisiana Mississippi Chemical Corridor, an eighty-five mile stretch of land along the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, often referred to as ‘Cancer Alley’, contains one of the highest concentrations of petrochemical facilities in the Western Hemisphere (136 petrochemical factories and seven oil refineries in total). The area has built up a notorious reputation for illness, notably increased risks of cancer and respiratory problems. The experiences of industrial pollution are highly racialised in Cancer Alley, with African-American communities bearing the brunt of petrochemical activities in the area, while receiving few of the socio-economic benefits of the industry.[iii] Many of these petrochemical sites were formerly slave plantations and thus the distribution of pollution burdens in Cancer Alley reflects the toxic legacies of slavery and a distinct form of environmental racism that can be understood as “petrochemical colonialism”.[iv]
Another petrochemical corridor, nicknamed ‘Chemical Valley’, is located in Sarnia, a small border town in Ontario, Canada. Comprised of more than 60 refineries and petrochemical plants and stretching for over 30 kilometres along the St. Clair River, the Valley is Canada’s densest concentration of petrochemical industries. ‘Chemical Valley’ has been associated with significant levels of toxic pollution in Sarnia and the surrounding area, with the World Health Organisation declaring the town as having the poorest air quality in Canada. The indigenous populations residing in the Aamjiwnaang Reserve disproportionately bear the environmental and health burdens from the toxic pollution in Chemical Valley.[v] The reserve is situated within 5 kilometres of over 30 industrial facilities and is today effectively surrounded on all sides by refining and chemical plants. The documented health impacts from the industrial activity in ‘Chemical Valley’ is compounded for the Aamjiwnaang First Nation which has reported high levels of asthma, reproductive effects, learning disabilities and cancer.[vi]
Elsewhere, a major industrial hub in South Durban, South Africa (known as the South Durban Basin) is the largest petrochemical complex on the continent, comprised of two large refineries and numerous integrated petrochemical plants. Toxic air pollution from the South Durban Basin (SDB) affects around 200,000 proximal residents. A considerable proportion of these communities are made up of low-income, Indian and black South African citizens who bear the brunt of industrial air pollution and negative health impacts in South Durban, with the white populations tending to reside in the peripheral high grounds.[vii] This is a legacy of apartheid, with the development of the petrochemical industry in South Durban closely linked to racialised zoning strategies. Housing schemes for marginalised communities were deliberately sited in close proximity to the SDB as sources of cheap labour for the industry.[viii]
The Global Petrochemical Map also highlights the multiple forms of community mobilisation that have emerged in response to the uneven environmental and health impacts of petrochemical industrial activity. The conflicts and challenges associated with these impacts are framed differently depending on socio-economic, political and cultural contexts. In the US, Canada and South Africa, community groups and activists tend to adopt an explicit environmental justice or environmental racism framing, with emphasis placed upon the unfairness of the distribution of pollution burdens and the lack of voice that marginalised groups have in decision-making. This framing is closely tied to the US-centric origins of the environmental justice movement and its connections to the civil rights movement, while in South Africa environmental justice struggles emerged from a specific history of apartheid.
However, in other contexts, mobilisation and activism have been driven by environmental or health concerns, but without a specifically environmental justice-informed analysis. The environmental concerns typically relate to localised air and water pollution, but some mobilisation at petrochemical sites draws on global environmental crises, notably pertaining to climate change. In particular, campaigns driven by international NGOs tend to frame pollution issues in global or broader terms, e.g. Greenpeace’s symbolic occupation of Total’s Gonfreville refinery in Le Havre in 2009 to protest against the company’s role in climate change.
Overlapping the environmentalist frameworks, health and safety concerns of fenceline communities have formed the basis of mobilisation and activism in some sites, encompassing the attritional health risks associated with toxic exposure (e.g. raised cancer risks, respiratory illnesses[ix]), as well as the fear of industrial accidents and explosions. The Global Petrochemical Map demonstrates health impacts and concerns in multiple contexts, including, for example, the increased risk of Keratoconjunctivitis and other serious eye conditions among residents living close to the refinery complex in Warri, Nigeria; campaigning by citizens groups in Siracusa, Sicily against the health impacts of pollution from the petrochemical industry; the anti-PX (paraxylene) protests which took place across China between 2007 and 2013.[x]
Faced with environmental injustices and global environmental crises, the petrochemical industry has largely responded through technocratic means. As demonstrated on The Global Petrochemical Map, technological innovations have been used by some petrochemical firms to reduce emissions and other forms of environmental degradation, primarily in the US and Europe. Notably, the industry has invested in sulphur capture technology in some contexts (e.g. the Esso refinery in Fawley on the South-coast of England; the Chevron refinery in Richmond, California) as a way of improving air quality, while bio-fuels have been increasingly integrated into petrochemical feedstocks in response to climate change regulations (e.g. the conversion of ENI’s refineries in Porto Marghera, Gela and Porto Torres into ‘biorefineries’; the large-scale adoption of palm oil-based production in the Rotterdam petrochemical complex).
Despite the technological developments, growth in petrochemical and plastics production has continued at scale. As reflected upon from the World Petrochemical Conference earlier this year, the global petrochemical industry appears to be fundamentally driven in its sustainability shift and green technological developments by environmental legislation and regulations and by maintaining its social licence to produce plastics. The petrochemical industry’s technocratic response to environmental crises reflects a narrow definition of sustainability (around plastic waste management or emissions regulations) and allows a continuation of unsustainable practices and strategies, meaning that, for instance, bio-fuels are increasingly adopted by the industry, despite the close linkages between bio-fuel production and tropical deforestation.
Employment Trends and Industrial Disputes
The Map allows identifying common trends as well as sharp spatial differences in employment relations in the global petrochemical sector. According to the ILO’s estimates, about 20 million workers are employed in the chemical industry worldwide.[xi] Employment relations for such workers have been characterised by three general trends: automation, precarisation, and the rising significance of the “job blackmail” in relation to the guarantee of health and environmental standards.
Automation is a secular trend in the petrochemical industry, as rapid technological innovation and the introduction of machinery to substitute human labour have been central for the economic viability of petrochemical enterprises virtually since the appearance of the sector. Hence, the petrochemical sector is a typical capital-intensive branch. In recent years, the most advanced forms of automation were categorised as “Industry 4.0”, i.e. the deployment of the Internet of Things, cloud technology, and big data in the productive process. While in Industry 3.0 robots could be used to eliminate most human physical operations, the digitalisation of production that comes with Industry 4.0 represents a leap forward in the automation of the collection, processing and communication of information. These technological transformations imply a quantitative shrinking of the core workforce as well as a qualitative increase in its skill levels and corresponding remuneration, as more training is required to manage and control such complex productive systems.
A trend partially related to automation is the relative decrease in the share of secure, core workers and the precarisation of an increasing share of the petrochemical workforce through outsourcing. The dualism between direct employees and outsourced workers existed even in the heyday of the vertically integrated Fordist company, for example in the construction of the plants and in periodical maintenance. Since the neoliberal rise of the network company, however, a widening range of tasks has been assigned to subcontracted workers through a bewildering array of juridical forms that varies depending on national regulatory frameworks. Such tasks include peripheral activities like cleaning, catering, gardening and security but have come to encompass logistics and a significant share of all-year maintenance.[xii] Outsourced workers are inserted in triangular employment relations that differ from traditional dual employee-employer relations because a third party, the contractor, mediates between the worker and the main company. This arrangement further fragments the workforce and heightens the competition among workers. Unsurprisingly, outsourced workers tend to be those most exposed to workplace hazards.
While outsourcing – even within spatially unified workplaces – is a general trend, the petrochemical sector presents some specific characteristics. The first is that “In fluid or process industries, in which human labour – particularly maintenance – is disconnected from the automatic functioning of the machines, it is even more difficult to distinguish between core ‘productive’ activities and ‘auxiliary’ ones”.[xiii] This enlarges the margins of arbitrariness concerning the tasks to be outsourced and those to be kept in-house. Secondly, petrochemical plants need to periodically halt production for months to perform major maintenance works. During such “technical pauses”, the ratio of outsourced vs. core workers increases significantly, as specific and itinerant professional figures are brought in, some of them highly specialised. This brings us to the third element, i.e. the outsourced workforce is itself steeply stratified, from relatively unskilled tasks (e.g. cleaning, hazardous maintenance) to highly skilled ones (e.g. specialised technical maintenance).
Finally, the petrochemical industry has increasingly become the target of concerns over the collateral damages caused by greenhouse gases, industrial hazards, toxic emissions and plastic waste. Petrochemical workers have been particularly affected in terms of workplace health and safety conditions. In its history, the industry underwent numerous high-profile accidents, like the Oppau explosion in Germany (1921) or the Flixborough disaster in England (1974) and – by far the worst –the Bhopal disaster in India (1984). These industrial catastrophes resulted in literal massacres of workers and residents, while the “slow violence” of toxicity has also taken a high toll on labourers exposed to carcinogenic substances like vinyl chloride monomer (VCM).
In spite of notable counter-examples, petrochemical workers in several cases tended to be hesitant in using their strategic position within the industry to change it radically in the direction of environmental sustainability. Workers in polluting industries, in fact, are faced with the so-called “job blackmail”, i.e. the dilemma between accepting pollution or losing the job. Such a dilemma has surfaced over and over again in the reported cases, but there are also instances of working-class environmentalism at the point of production in which efforts are made to move beyond the job blackmail through just transitions to less polluting employment.
The World Conference for the Chemical Industries of IndustriALL Global Union, which took place on 26-27 June 2019 in Istanbul, recognised that “the industry faces tremendous change as it grapples with climate change, the backlash against plastic production and the introduction of new production technology”. To face such challenges, the Conference has embraced the strategy of a just transition away from highly polluting production “that will ensure that the rights and living standards of workers and their families and communities are protected [… through] large-scale public investment in infrastructure and clean energy technologies, assistance for dislocated workers, access to education and training, preferential hiring to new jobs, or alternate solutions tailored to individual needs”.
The Map allows users to “zoom in” on particular political ecologies, highlighting the marked spatial unevenness and distinctive specificities through which the common tendencies outlined above play out. Even in Western Europe, one cannot help noticing the sharp differences between, for example, BASF’s petrochemical complex in Ludwigshafen (Germany) and the Sicilian hub of Priolo Melilli (Italy). BASF, the world’s largest petrochemical industry, has a controversial past marked by industrial disasters and strict cooperation with the Nazi regime. In spite of this, today BASF in Ludwigshafen provides employment to about 39,000 workers and keeps a relatively favourable safety, environmental and employment record, which results in the virtual absence of industrial disputes and community mobilisations targeting the company. On the other hand, employment levels in Priolo Melilli have decreased drastically since the 1970s, with an estimate 4,000 jobs available now and a clear declining trend for the future. The health and environmental record of the local factories was disastrous. Workers and local communities have been suffering from unusually high levels of cancer, respiratory diseases, cardiovascular pathologies, birth defects and miscarriages, and courts intervened on several occasions to attempt to contain routine violations of environmental regulations. This state of affairs resulted in repeated strikes to defend workplaces and frequent community mobilisations against toxic pollution.
Moving out of Europe, Saudi Arabia is the most influential player in the Middle East and its drive towards a massive expansion of the petrochemical industry was marked by extremely repressive employment relations and scant transparency over the industries’ health and environmental performances. Saudi Arabia is boosting its petrochemical capacity in the industrial areas of Jubail and Yanbu, as part of its plans to diversify the economy away from crude exports. While the core workforce appears to be limited in numbers and highly qualified, the large peripheral workforce – most visibly in the building sector – is composed almost entirely of Asian migrant workers deprived of the most basic labour (and civil) rights. While there are no reports of community mobilisations over pollution, which is probably not unrelated from the high costs associated with protest in the country, there is much news of migrant workers’ strikes, mostly over unpaid wages. Such strikes take place in the absence of a legal framework for union representation, collective bargaining and the right to strike itself. Therefore, they are often met with state repression and there are reports of strikers being fired upon and killed by Saudi security forces.[xiv]
Both of the themes described in this article highlight differential deployments of power relations across space, exemplifying how The Global Petrochemical Map can be used to draw out the political-spatial nexus of petrochemical production. In fact, the siting of the most toxic petrochemical plants in the vicinities of minority and low-income communities or the deployment of extremely repressive employment practices in countries where labour is weak can only be understood through the prism of power relations embedded in space.
The Global Petrochemical Map provides us with insights into broad trends of the petrochemical industry and can help us to better understand common injustices connected to the industry occurring across the world, both in relation to workers and fenceline communities. Nevertheless, these are heterogeneous cases in which the environmental, health and community impacts of the industry are intertwined with the socio-economic, political and environmental conditions of the specific region and locality.
The Global Petrochemical Map is a participatory endeavour, in which we encourage inputs from community groups and members, NGOs, workers, and others impacted upon by the industry from anywhere in the world. In order to improve and expand the map, we welcome feedback on how we could make it more accessible and beneficial, and invite contributions to our collaborative resource. We encourage you to describe your personal experiences and stories in relation to a specific petrochemical site or to contribute to cases on which we have yet to report.
To view the mapping tool or to contribute to it, please see our webpage: https://globalpetrochemicalmap.communitymaps.org.uk/welcome
And for further information about the map, please contact us at: firstname.lastname@example.org
[i] See Mah, A. and Wang, X., 2019. Accumulated Injuries of Environmental Injustice: Living and Working with Petrochemical Pollution in Nanjing, China. Annals of the American Association of Geographers, pp.1-17; Allen, B. 2003. Uneasy Alchemy: Citizens and Experts in Louisiana’s Chemical Corridor Disputes. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press; Davies, T. 2018. Toxic Space and Time: Slow Violence, Necropolitics, and Petrochemical Pollution. Annals of the American Association of Geographers, pp.1-17; Auyero, J. and Swistun, D. 2009. Flammable: Environmental suffering in an Argentine shantytown. Oxford University Press.
[ii] Nixon, R. 2011. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Harvard University Press.
[iii] See Wright, B. 2003. Race, Politics and Pollution: Environmental Justice in the Mississippi River Chemical Corridor. In: Just Sustainabilities: Development in an Unequal World, pp.125-145; Davies, T. 2018. Toxic Space and Time: Slow Violence, Necropolitics, and Petrochemical Pollution. Annals of the American Association of Geographers, pp.1-17.
[iv] Bullard, R. 1993. Confronting Environmental Racism: Voices from the Grassroots. Cambridge, MA: South End Press.
[v] See Wiebe, S. 2016. Everyday Exposure: Indigenous Mobilization and Environmental Justice in Canada’s Chemical Valley. Vancouver: UBC Press.
[vi] See MacDonald, E. and Rang, S. 2007. Exposing Canada’s Chemical Valley: An Investigation of Cumulative Air Pollution Emissions in the Sarnia, Ontario Area. Ecojustice Canada.
[vii] See Bond, P. 2014. Economic, Ecological and Social Risks in Durban’s Port-Petrochemical-Coal Expansion. Man In India, 94(3), pp.471-500; Adebayo, A., Musvoto, G. and Adebayo, P. 2013. Towards the Creation of Healthier City Neighbourhoods for Marginalised Communities in South Africa: A Case Study of the South Durban Industrial Basin in the City of Durban. Urban Forum, 24(3), pp.343-355.
[viii] See Scott, D., Oelefse, C. and Guy, C., 2002. Double Trouble: Environmental Injustice in South Durban. Agenda, 17(52), pp.50-57.
[ix] World Health Organization 2014. Human Health in Areas with Industrial Contamination. Copenhagen, Denmark: WHO Regional Office for Europe.
[x] Sun, X. and Huang, R. 2018. Spatial Meaning-Making and Urban Activism: Two Tales of Anti-PX protests in urban China. Journal of Urban Affairs, pp.1-21.
[xi] This figure includes the chemical, pharmaceutical, and rubber and tyre industries but excludes oil & gas and refinery workers.
[xii] See Lafuente Hérnandez, S., Jamar D., and Martínez E. 2016. Respuestas sindicales ante el desafío de la empresa-red: sector petroquímico y nuclear. Cuadernos de relaciones laborales, 34(1), pp.151-171.
[xiii] In the work cited, p. 153.
[xiv] Press TV, 2018, “Angry Workers Clash with Police in Saudi Arabia over Unpaid Salaries”, https://www.presstv.com/Detail/2018/10/03/575947/workers-Saudi-Arabia-unpaid-salaries (retrieved 20 February 2019); The Peninsula, 2018, “Saudi Police Fires at Angry Workers Protesting over Unpaid Salaries”, https://www.thepeninsulaqatar.com/article/04/10/2018/Saudi-police-fires-at-angry-workers-protesting-over-unpaid-salaries (retrieved 20 February 2019); UrduPoint, 2019, “Saudi Police Opens Fire at Pakistanis Protesting over Unpaid Wages”, https://www.urdupoint.com/en/pakistan/saudi-police-opens-fire-at-pakistanis-protest-538428.html (retrieved 20 February 2019).