Quiet Contemplation: Refinery Healing Walks Seek to Bring Communities Together

This weekend people will come together for a Refinery Corridor Healing Walk to raise awareness to the dangers that refineries pose to surrounding communities.

The Refinery Healing Walk is an opportunity to bring people together to combat air pollution issues.
The Refinery Healing Walk is an opportunity to bring people together to combat air pollution issues. (Rebekah Olstad)

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Last April, a group of nearly 40 people gathered on a Saturday afternoon to walk 14 miles through suburban sprawl and next to freeways, isolated parking lots, rail tracks and oil refineries. The first in a series of “Refinery Corridor Healing Walks,” the purpose was to walk in prayer and conversation for a safe future for all life on the planet, and to bring attention to the dangers that refineries pose to surrounding communities in the San Francisco Bay Area. 

Now in its second year, the healing walks are organized by members of Idle No More SF Bay, and the Bay Area Refinery Corridor Coalition, which includes members from communities impacted by toxic pollution from oil refineries. The walks continue the tradition of indigenous-led healing walks, such as the Tar Sands Healing Walks in Alberta, Canada, and the Peace & Dignity journeys, where indigenous communities share stories, song, dance and the wisdom that comes from community elders and ceremony. 

Around 150 oil refineries are dotted across the United States, and neighboring communities are often forced to breathe a toxic soup of their hazardous air pollution—including chemicals like arsenic, mercury and hydrogen cyanide, which are known to cause cancer, birth defects, asthma and many other serious health issues. One of the primary goals of the healing walks is to link together communities in the Bay Area that experience the harmful effects of refinery air pollution. 

“When our communities are separate and not in communication about these harms, we tend to intellectually and emotionally treat the illnesses like they are isolated issues and not part of something bigger,” explains Pennie Opal Plant, one of the lead organizers.  

For the first healing walk of 2015, women from Idle No More SF Bay opened the event with a ceremony giving thanks for the waters that support all life on earth. The healing walk departed from the proposed site of the Wespac oil terminal in Pittsburg, Calif. If constructed, it would put the residents of Pittsburg and the greater SF Bay Area at risk for increased air pollution and oil spills. In light of recent oil train explosions, Wespac recently dropped the rail component of its plan, but it is now proposing to move crude oil by pipeline or vessel, which would still present hazards to the community. 

Along the way, marchers stopped at the Tesoro refinery in Martinez, Calif., where workers had gone  on strike earlier in the year to demand safer working conditions and fairer wages. On the picket lines, workers had been joined by environmentalists who supported advocacy for strong safety standards. The walk continued past the Shell oil refinery in Martinez, until concluding at the Martinez regional shoreline, where women elders closed the event with a final water ceremony. All those who participated in the healing walk were also invited to draw on a piece of fabric to “envision the future we want”—the pieces will become part of a larger quilt imagining a bright, clean future.

Here at Earthjustice, we are working to protect all communities from the unacceptable harms caused by oil refineries by calling on the EPA to enforce strong monitoring standards and to close air pollution loopholes. We’re inspired by organizers and clean air warriors like Pennie, who says, “Do what you can where you are with who you know.  Rise up for the places, people and non-human relatives that you love.  I promise you will meet the most amazing and wonderful folks when you do.” 

To learn more about the healing walks, visit refineryhealingwalks.com. The remaining two walks will take place on June 20, 2015, and July 19, 2015.


Rebekah Olstad worked in the Communications Department at Earthjustice.

The California Regional Office fights for the rights of all to a healthy environment regardless of where in the state they live; we fight to protect the magnificent natural spaces and wildlife found in California; and we fight to transition California to a zero-emissions future where cars, trucks, buildings, and power plants run on clean energy, not fossil fuels.