Detroit, the tar sands, and burying my father in toxic ground

By Rachel Havrelock

My father had mentioned his entitlement to burial by the U.S. Army only once, but as I sat by his deathbed, going through his papers, the recurrence of flyers about the veteran benefit convinced me this was his will. He had spent much of his life in Michigan, having last worked at the VA hospital in Battle Creek, so his grave probably belongs in that state, but I had moved him to Chicago, nearer to me, five months before his death. A good thing about a federal benefit is that it can be accessed from any state, so Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery, in Joliet, Illinois, is his final resting place.

He died in August 2019, and on the drive to the cemetery, funeral flags waving briskly in freeway wind, the processional moved through the oil-fueled backend of global capitalism. We looped around the ExxonMobil tar sands refinery, where a giant coker strips sulfur from tar sands; the Joliet Logistics Hub, where mammoth, opaque warehouses draw trucks like bees to a hive of consumer plastics and unprotected workers; and Enbridge Line 6a—part of the same network as Enbridge Line 6B, which, in 2010, cracked and spilled more than a million gallons of diluted tar sands oil into the Kalamazoo River, just upstream of Battle Creek, where my father was working at the time.

I am fascinated by the optics of oil—how a ubiquitous substance eludes our gaze as it is mined, then piped beneath our feet, only to become visible at the point of consumption. As a researcher, I want to see oil, to make it perceptible as a system that reaches across time and space. As a human, I want to understand its role in my own life. This involves plenty of historical research (the same companies have been engaging in the same practices in different places for about a hundred and fifty years), as well as adventures across pipeline networks both defunct and emergent. My approach is that of a bioregionalist; I believe that, like watersheds, “oilsheds” link ecosystems, land mass, and human communities strung along a pipeline network.

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My oilshed is named the Lakehead System. Created by the Canadian pipeline corporation Enbridge, it begins in a clear cut of ancient boreal forests in northern Canada, where viscous tar sands are mined from the lands of Cree and Chipewyan First Nations; crosses the border into North Dakota; runs across Indigenous and rural land in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan; and feeds industrial refining complexes in Detroit; Whiting (Gary), Indiana; and Sarnia, Ontario. Really, the Lakehead System knows no end; it branches into Line 9 across eastern Canada and into the contentious Keystone network through the American Midwest and South. And it pushes ever-outward, as its contents splash onto barges and tankers with a global reach.

But just like politics, all oil is local, and it consists largely of an alphabet soup of infrastructure. My main pipelines, for example, include Lines 5, 6a, 6B, and, more peripherally, Lines 3, 6, 14 and 61. When I travel, I learn to recognize the symbols identifying pipelines and find the points where they peek out of the earth. I meet with people to learn how leaks and spills, protest and surveillance, and the crest and crash of oil jobs affect their lives. Whether they face a siege of mine pollution, cyclical rural spills, or refinery-blackened air, communities are bound by this petro-social network.

But the more I’ve studied the Lakehead System, the more it seems to frame and reflect my own biography. Standing in the grass at Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery, I thought of how oil clouded so many of my memories of my father, how it structured our relationship, how the specter of industry shaded even his burial. Abraham Lincoln itself sits alongside the Joliet Army Reserve Training Center, which used to host a munitions factory that saturated the soil in one hundred and fifty years of industrial toxins. Soldiers folded stars and stripes, comforting me with the certainty of ritual, as my father’s body was lowered into toxic ground.


I grew up in Detroit and, for all its industrial ruin, almost never felt uneasy. (I now recognize that this was in large part a function of the protective bubble of whiteness.) My sense of vulnerability flared only when my mother drove past the edge of the 250-acre Marathon refinery in southwest Detroit. I did not usually accompany her on this commute, so it only happened on days when I was off from school. The serpentine chutes would emerge on the horizon, and, as if on cue, semi-trucks would cluster and dwarf our sedan, pumping my mother’s anxiety until she became unsteady at the wheel. Above, the splitting and cracking across the vast complex rose as sooty sacrificial smoke puffing from towers. There, I felt profoundly that my mother and I were not okay.

Marathon’s Detroit refinery produces, among other things, gasoline. Across Michigan and beyond, gasoline-fueled mowers reduce blades of Kentucky Bluegrass, America’s number one crop. I knew something of mowers—a few years earlier, my mother and I had lived with my father in a suburban split-level with a grassy yard and tractor mower. The residential tractor lacked safety guards, my father was reckless, and I ended up beneath it, my left foot shredded by its blade. I spent two months in the hospital. On the weekend I was sent home for a break, just before reconstructive surgery, my father traveled to California with his mistress. When I was released, having been told by doctors I’d never walk again, he filed for divorce.

In the beginning, the Kochs shot petcoke out of refineries into stacks piled along the Calumet and Detroit Rivers. Mountains of coagulated black dust hovered behind homes, schools, and little league fields where games would be called in anticipation of a fierce thunderstorm. Residents, facing rapid property devaluation and compromised breathing, along with dust blanketing backyard cookouts, organized to remove the piles and forced the Koch Brothers to capitulate.  This marked a major environmental justice victory in the Obama era, propelling local activists like Olga Bautista into the limelight.

The Kochs continue to produce petcoke at tar sands refineries and load it onto barges, but it is difficult to determine where it is being stored or burned at any given moment. U.S. air pollution laws stipulate (or used to, before the EPA abdicated its role amid the COVID-19 pandemic) that unalloyed petcoke is too toxic to burn, but I have been told that it factors in the coal mix of factories. Most of it is shipped abroad, with India as the primary client.

My move from Detroit to Chicago did not outrun the tar sands industry.  It, like my childhood scar, came with me.


In 2010, the nation stood agape as oil gushed into the Gulf of Mexico from the blown Deepwater Horizon rig. Oil-soaked beaches, suffocating marine life, and eleven dead workers brought attention to the problem of oil. At the same time, the devastation unleashed by BP’s Deepwater Horizon distracted from the worst inland freshwater oil spill in global history. But to those paying attention, the rupture of Line 6B into the Kalamazoo River revealed just how thoroughly the U.S. State of Michigan had been colonized by Enbridge.

That year, my father was working as a radiologist at the Fort Custer Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Battle Creek, Michigan. X-ray vision brought my father to radiology. He could diagnose maladies from an image with pinpoint precision. Facing illness on a screen, Dr. Kenneth Havrelock had purpose and clarity. Other times, a sense of inferiority framed his perceptions. He grew up working-class and poor in Detroit, with an alcoholic father prone to long periods of disappearance. The combination influenced his cowboy libertarianism, apocalyptic Christian sanctimony, and tax-avoiding paranoia.

The VA hospital specializes in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder among veterans, with a recent majority returned from Iraq where they witnessed many an oil spill. The Fort Custer base also hosts a recreation area, where the public can access the Kalamazoo River and camp near its shores. The adjacent industrial park includes a banner from BASF, which proclaims: “We Create Chemistry.”

On July 25 of that year, Line 6B tore open, pouring tar sands diluted with liquefying chemicals into Talmadge Creek, which feeds the Kalamazoo River and, eventually, Lake Michigan. The Baker Estates Mobile Home Park, in Battle Creek, stands alongside the spill site; its residents noticed the blackening of the water and began calling the police, the fire department, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. They were neither heeded nor believed. As oil merged with pulsing river, residents of nearby Marshall added to the call volume.

Meanwhile, the shift changed at the control center in Alberta, Canada. Starting their workday, the new team observed what looked like a blockage in 6B around Marshall and decided to push it open it by increasing the pressure. More than three hundred thousand gallons of diluted tar sands spilled during the first shift, with more than seven hundred thousand unleashed in the second.

I learned of the oil spill as the story broke. News of the spill didn’t make it to west Michigan right-wing radio, so my father was unaware. “What oil spill?” He asked when I called. We could not strike a shared language of emergency. His rebuff of my oil spill reporting about his local river was personal, familial. Unacknowledged damage stood at the heart of our relationship.

A few years after the Kalamazoo River spill, I attended a presentation by residents who had waded in the water to check it out or try to help, some of whom had ended up with rare forms of cancer—“my cancer is so exotic that I am the living dead,” one panelist reported. Later, I asked my father if unusual cancers had been passing across his screens. His distant look and slow nod communicated the limitations of medicine faced with environmental disaster.

Soon after, he sent me paperwork establishing his right to a veteran’s burial in the Fort Custer cemetery. I took the hint to visit for his next medical procedure, then worked on tracking down the site of the spill. A legal settlement had been reached, and local people were hesitant to answer my question. So I navigated the area with 2010 news reports as my guide. I thought I must be close when I came across a pretty little park with river access and signs instructing people to wash hands, dogs, boats that might become caked in oil. Two men arrived to mow the park, and confirmed that yes, the spill had been very close, and the ineffective clean-up chaotic, until the federal EPA stepped in. The men were Iraq War veterans with extensive petro-knowledge who had been hired to remediate the spill. Since heavy tar sands sunk to the riverbed, the clean-up could never be total, but, they said, it was the best that could be done.

Oil barons like the Kochs have mastered the magic of disappearing commodities, such that their volume becomes apparent only during a spill. Malfunction is built into systems whose costs are cut from every angle to inflate profits. To our eyes, spills mark emergency; to theirs, business. The rupture of 6B into Michigan waters brought Enbridge even better fortune—after the spill, the company replaced 6B with an expanded pipeline that doubled its capacity. This project counted as maintenance, rather than new construction, and therefore required no additional permit applications or review.


The search for origins exerts an inexorable pull. In 2016, I traveled to Edmonton, Alberta, headquarters of the Enbridge Corporation—where tar sands are extracted, where my father was born. My ancestors were Ukrainians who fled early-twentieth-century upheavals and found Canadian prairies both familiar and inviting, and my father belonged to the wing of Hawryluks who later migrated toward Detroit auto plants. Immediate family, whether in Detroit or Alberta, synchronized their name change to Havrelock, which made it easier for me to find them in a city populated with variations.

I had come to Edmonton for a gathering of the Petrocultures research group. Our goal was to explore the transition away from fossil fuels, and how to reinvent social systems to accommodate such a change. But even as we looked to the future, I found myself confronted by my family’s oily past.

Cousins came to pick me up at the airport, which doubled as shrine to the Edmonton Oilers hockey team. Their tour of the city doubled as family history. William Hawrelak, our late relative, had been the longest-serving mayor in Edmonton history. Discovery of the tar sands buoyed his political career and enabled him to develop the very public institutions and parks we visited. “He was a boss mayor, like your Mayor Daley,” my cousins explained.

The next day, I woke up early to walk through William Hawrelak Park. Between sessions, I met more members of the Havrelock family, including its historian, who had been building the family tree. The trunk extended from Tomas Hawryluk, who had immigrated from Ukraine, moved to Detroit, and abandoned his family to pursue screenwriting and chiropractics in Los Angeles, and Anna (nee Szach) Hawryluk, whose memoir, written in Ukrainian, warns young girls about the perils of marriage. (Only its first paragraph has been translated.) Our historian knew my branch and pointed out resemblances between myself and a photo of my grandfather as a young man.

Meanwhile, at the Petrocultures meeting, I learned of Idle No More, a movement of Indigenous people and their allies to halt the ravaging of land by the Canadian government and private corporations that leaves the sovereign nations dispossessed and exposed to concentrated pollutants.  Its actions involve water walks led by Anishinaabe grandmothers, which reveal the paths of pipelines, draw connections across ecosystems and communities, and heal life sustaining waters. As they draw on history and ceremony, the water walkers witness the operative violence of an extractive society and sustain an alternate relationship to the world.

These days, the Lakehead System is as relevant as ever. After building a bigger, post-spill 6B, Enbridge looked to expand across Minnesota. Abandoning some characteristically leaky lines, Enbridge began laying a bloated Line 3 across the Land of 10,000 Lakes. Meanwhile, Line 5, which runs through the Straits of Mackinac, is on its last legs. Former Governor Rick Snyder, at the end of his term, cut a deal with Enbridge to build a tunnel around Line 5. Enbridge seized the coronavirus shutdown as the ideal moment to file its permit application, submitting it to Michigan on April 8, 2020.

Whenever we appear not to be looking, the system accelerates and expands. Pipelines, leaks, and spills have scarred the landscape and forever changed the climate. Under the assumption that the nation is duly distracted, the Trump Administration has moved to ease any remaining responsibility of corporations to prevent and report oil spills. Michigan water leaders responded to Enbridge’s April 8 application by calling on Governor Gretchen Whitmer, who campaigned against Line 5, to delay review of Enbridge’s applications until the public can come forward to comment in person. Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel argues that Enbridge’s easement along the Straits of Mackinac violates state law.

I have limped ever since I learned to walk again. It was with these arrhythmic steps that I turned from my father’s grave, one swollen foot after the other, into my post-paternal life. I envision the collective body progressing in a similar way: weakened by coronavirus and wounded by fossil fuels, but moving on, nonetheless, into the future after oil. ■



Rachel Havrelock is the founder and director of the UIC Freshwater Lab and co-creator of the Freshwater Stories digital platform. Her current research on North American rivers follows her books on the Middle East, River Jordan: The Mythology of a Dividing Line (University of Chicago Press) and the forthcoming The Joshua Generation: Israeli Occupation and the Bible (Princeton University Press, 2020).

Cover image of the Marathon Detroit Refinery by Kevin Chang (creative commons).

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