I stepped out of our SUV a few weeks ago and breathed the air near the massive Conoco Phillips oil refinery in Roxana, Illinois.
It smelled like natural gas, which makes sense considering the refinery burns gas in its huge burners that light up the sky like steel torches.
I returned a few days later.
The smell was even stronger.
On my third trip we could smell it without getting out of the vehicle.
The refinery burns alot of gas. It also employs many workers who spend alot of money in the area, which helps explain why some residents call it "the smell of money." Mayor Felix Floyd says his father described it as "bread and butter."
It's easy to see why they would feel that way. The refinery contributes about 40% of the tax revenue to the small village of Roxana. The refinery has provided many families with a good living, and with the dramatic expansion currently underway it could create more than 2,000 construction jobs and another 100 long-term refinery jobs.
Obviously, Conoco Phillips has made a significant and positive impact on the economy.
But the town often smells no matter how much Mayor Felix Floyd (shown below) and company officials hate to admit it.
The refinery has clearly had its problems over the years with bad smells and complaints about excessive pollution damaging homes, but the expansion and an agreement reached with the EPA means that the refinery will actually produce less air pollution within a few years, even though it will greatly increase its capacity.
We met some nice folks in Roxana, but everytime we stopped to take pictures of the refinery a Conoco Phillips security guard demanded to know why we were there and insisted that we should have called in advance to tell the company we were coming to Roxana. A Conoco Phillips spokeswoman told us that we were "violating Homeland Security" by flying our helicopter near the refinery.
During our last visit the Roxana Police Chief stopped by to check out why we were videotaping the refinery, even though he politely admitted we had a right to be there and take pictures of the plant.
We tried several times to get a Conoco Phillips representative to give us an on-camera interview, but after agreeing to do it, the company backed out.
Today, the company issued this statement:
"The Wood River Refinery operates in a safe, reliable, and environmentally-responsible manner that respects our neighbors and team members. The Wood River Refinery Team is committed to this goal, and our track record shows we are succeeding. Our expansion project will yield even better environmental performance while providing jobs and increasing the regional supply of needed low-sulfur gasoline and diesel fuel refined from secure sources of Canadian crude oil. Viewers should also know that, in our surrounding communities of Roxana, Hartford, South Roxana and Wood River, our longstanding tradition of involvement and respect speaks for itself."
I always think individuals, businesses and government agencies are better off talking on-camera, but many public relations representatives disagree. The Conoco-Phillips representative insisted that she would need "several hours" to prepare her boss for an interview with me. That was more than a month after we first requested an interview and tour of the refinery.
I can understand why some people don't want to be interviewed, but I can't imagine a question I would have asked the Plant Manager that he couldn't have handled in a reasonable and professional way.
Instead, Conoco Phillips bobbed and weaved needlessly, made unreasonable demands and at times behaved like a small town bully.