Passing laws, exposing lies, and getting kicked out of the governor’s office. In 1973, Dudley Dudley, former representative for Durham in the New Hampshire legislature, experienced these things while trying to stop an oil refinery from being built in Durham. Although her life now is much calmer, her work engraves herself as one of the most important people in Durham’s history.
50 years ago, in 1973, the corporation Olympic Oil, backed by oil magnate Aristotle Onassis, was looking to build the biggest oil refinery at the time in Durham NH, being able to produce about 400,000 barrels of oil a day. Even worse, the Governor at the time, Meldrim Thompson, supported the oil refinery project. However, Dudley, who was a state legislator at the time, garnered the support of other prominent figures and Durham residents, and was able to pass a law preventing the refinery from being built, saving Durham, and New Hampshire, from potential disaster. MOR covered this issue in a 2017 article titled Oil and Water by Lydia Concannon, but this story focuses more on Dudley’s contributions in stopping the refinery.
Looking at other oil industries in New Jersey, Olympic decided that Durham’s Great Bay was a good place for a refinery. “The reason it was in Durham was because the governor hated Durham, and he somehow figured that Durham would be a good place. And the Onassis people had flown over Durham and had seen that there were seven rivers flowing into Durham, one way or the other,” explained Dudley.
Their plan was to buy up a lot of land in the area. To get the oil to the refinery, there would be a long pipeline from the Isles of Shoals, through Rye and Newington, finally reaching Durham. As more and more land got purchased, however, people noticed. One day in the summer of 1973, Dudley received a phone call. “I answered it, and it was a friend of mine that I had met in the legislature, and she said […] ‘Haven’t you heard? There’s a huge development going to happen, and it doesn’t sound good,’” she said.
Dudley realized that she needed to stop the refinery from being built. Dudley lived in Durham for the majority of her life, and she could not stand the idea of having an oil refinery in Durham. Since she was elected as representative for Strafford County in New Hampshire’s legislature in 1972, she knew it was her responsibility to represent Durham and defy the refinery. “My reasoning was not well thought out. It was instant. I knew it would be a terrible thing for this town and for the whole Seacoast area,” she said.
Soon, however, Dudley realized that this would be no easy task. “Eventually, it became known to us that the development was for the world’s largest oil refinery, built by the world’s richest man, with the help of the state’s governor, and the publisher of the only statewide newspaper in New Hampshire. “So, the cards were dealt against us,” she explained.
Having an oil refinery in Durham, although it would possibly bring in profits, was not very favorable. Firstly, there is always the possibility of an accident occurring. “Anything that you construct needs to be maintained, and if it’s not, it’s going to fall apart. All of that would require money and ongoing effort to maintain it. When we look at the history of that kind of industry, ultimately stuff happens. Stuff blows up, stuff leaks, and damage is going to happen as a result of it,” says ORHS Environmental Science teacher Jon Bromley said.
For example, in 1967, an oil tanker called the Torrey Canyon, sank after hitting a rock releasing an estimated 25-36 million gallons of crude oil into the ocean near the British Channel. The oil spilled from this tanker covered roughly 270 square miles, killing thousands of birds and many more marine animals. Since many large tankers would be coming to and from the Isles of Shoals to deposit oil, there would always be a chance of that occurring, which would no doubt devastate the local ecosystem and marine life.
Another thing to consider was what a Seacoast area affected by the refinery would look like. Oil refineries in New Jersey and Texas are not pleasant places to live near, as many byproducts can pollute the air near the refinery, causing many major health risks like cancer and stroke. Furthermore, since refineries produce so much oil, Dudley also believes there would be a need to industrialize other parts of the Seacoast.
To combat the refinery being built, many organizations were formed to inform the public, and garner opposition to the refinery. Publick Occurrences, created by Phyllis Bennett, was a newspaper that first informed the public about the refinery. Save Our Shores, founded by Nancy Sandberg, was an organization against the building of the refinery. They gathered more than 4,000 signatures as a petition against the refinery from Durham residents. “I took the petitions to the governor, and in that conversation, he threw me out of his office. Literally told me to get off my high horse and get out of here,” said Dudley.
Since it was such a big deal in Durham, Olympic would schedule town meetings to talk and answer questions about the refinery. During one of these meetings, which Dudley attended, the question of fresh water came up. Refineries needed fresh water for cooling, but Great Bay is a saltwater bay, making a refinery impossible to build there.
“One of the questions was asked by a young graduate student in hydrology: Cliff Horrigan. And she said, ‘you say you need 6,000 gallons of fresh water every minute, where are you going to get that?’ And Mr. Green, the leader of the consultants for Onassis, turned around and went back and talked to the other men in their suits, and said, ‘where are we going to get 6,000 gallons?’ and then he came back to the microphone, and he said, ‘well, we realize now we’ve made a mistake. We only need 3,000 gallons of fresh water a minute. And people went ‘oh you terrible, terrible liar,’” said Dudley.
The disinformation did not stop there. “Then [Horrigan] said, ‘where are you going to get 3,000 [gallons]?’ [Green] went back and asked them and returned to say the happy news: they only needed 1,500 [gallons]. And the place went crazy; […] you couldn’t believe anything they said after that. There was no reason to believe anything,” said Dudley.
With all this dishonesty, why would anyone support this refinery? Most of the towns who supported it were not affected by the refinery. Additionally, the refinery claimed to give the area more jobs, better oil security, and create tax cuts. At face value, these benefits were reasonable, as at the time there were not many jobs. To investigate the legitimacy of these claims, Nancy Sandberg created a committee of mostly university professors to research if, after approving the refinery, all the promises would be fulfilled.
Firstly, Dudley explained that the committee found that the jobs created by the refinery were only for people who had experience in building refineries. “Nobody in New Hampshire had any experience in that industry, so it wasn’t going to mean more jobs for very many people.”
The committee then analyzed refineries across the country to see if residents had benefits from those refineries. “They found that the people in Texas and New Jersey were paying one cent more for gasoline than we were in New Hampshire.”
Lastly, the committee found that, although there would be some tax benefits, the only part that gets taxed is the administration building, as the tanks for the refinery could be dismantled, therefore not counted as real estate. “There’d be no tax benefit to Durham, because only real estate [would have counted].”
After exposing the fraudulent refinery, Dudley and the Seacoast residents were determined to stop it from being built. “Marty Gross, who was a lawyer in Concord, was just talking to me as a young state rep, and he said, ‘If you ever want to get anything done in the New Hampshire legislature, use these two words: Home Rule,’” said Dudley. Home Rule, according to the New Hampshire Municipal Association, is a “municipality’s ability to govern itself.” In this case, Home Rule would enable Durham and other towns affected by the refinery to make the decisions themselves if they want to keep it.
On March 6th, 1974, Durham voted with an 8-1 majority to prevent the refinery from being built. The next day, Dudley’s Home Rule bill was voted into the state legislature. “With the background of what happened during the night before we went into that legislative session, people who would probably have voted for the oil refinery and against my bill, [instead] voted for my bill. They figured, although they were in Nashua or Manchester or Berlin or Claremont, if such a thing happened to their town, they would want their town to have a say in it too,” Dudley said.
After Durham rejected the refinery plan, Olympic moved to towns like Newmarket and Rochester, who they thought were in favor of the refinery, but it could never get its footing. There were some issues with the refinery that conflicted with someone’s property, and the result of what happened in Durham was enough to convince everyone the refinery would be a bad idea.
While Dudley and her team were celebrating their victory over dinner, they noticed some Olympic representatives were having dinner in the same restaurant. When they came over to talk to Dudley, she believed that they were going to tell her about the new locations they were planning to build the refinery. “[Mr. Green] came up to me, put his hand out, and said, ‘we just want you to know one thing.’ I said, ‘what is that?’ He said, ‘the right side won.’”
– James Li