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February 26, 2014

Health Miseries Follow Tar Sands

Photo courtesy of Courtenay Lewis
Sen. Barbara Boxer (center) with -- from left to right -- Dr. Stuart Batterman, Tom Shepherd, and Hilton Kelly.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) knows the consequences from the Keystone XL pipeline go far beyond the pages of the State Department's hotly contested Final Environmental Impact Survey (FEIS).

Setting aside the critically important fact that Keystone XL and the tar sands oil it would tap into would have devastating repercussions on our climate crisis, what the FEIS omits entirely are the serious health effects on the people along its proposed route from Canada to Texas.  Every step of the way, from extraction to refining to waste removal, is a proven public health disaster.

"I'm concerned about the impact of tar sands on our people wherever they live," Boxer said.

Today, four voices that could speak to that joined Boxer and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) to talk about their first-hand experiences with tar sands oil at each stage of the process of its production.  

The tar sands originate and are mined largely in Alberta, Canada, the home of Dr. John O'Connor. In the Fort Chipewyan area that O'Connor serves, residents of this tiny town are 30 percent more likely to develop cancer -- specifically rare cancers like cholangiocarcinoma, a fatal bile duct cancer.

Disturbed by the drastically increasing cancer rates, O'Connor brought this information to the attention of authorities starting nearly a decade ago. Since then, he says, tar sands extraction has increased, and the authorities have done nothing.

"It's a public health crisis in this community," O'Connor said.

A bit further to the southeast, Dr. Stuart Batterman, a professor of Environmental Health Sciences at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, has found the public health crisis to be just as dramatic. He's observed an increase in the number of adult males developing leukemia in the area surrounding tar sands oil refineries. And he believes we are significantly underestimating the number of chemicals used in the refining process.

"We need to be proactive and avoid this situation in the first place," Batterman said, arguing that the key is solving the problem before the cancer develops, not doing damage control after it's been found.

Even further south, at the ultimate destination of the Keystone XL pipeline in Port Arthur, Texas, Hilton Kelly, an environmental justice activist and founder and CEO of Community In-power and Development Association Inc., said introducing tar sands oil to an area already saturated with numerous oil refineries and chemical plants would make a bad situation much worse. Kelly said tar sands and Keystone XL would increase emissions of benzene, heavy metals, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the air that residents of Port Arthur breathe every day.

"Enough is enough," Kelly said. "We do not need nor do we want tar sands in our community. It's time for the onslaught to end."

Once the oil is refined, the leftover waste, called petroleum coke or petcoke, needs to go somewhere. One of those places is southeast Chicago, home of Tom Shepherd, vice president of the Southeast Environmental Task Force in Chicago. These mountains of petcoke line rivers in the area and are dangerously close to backyards, parks, and schools. Because the petcoke is stored in open-air pits, large clouds of black dust have been swirling around southeast Chicago for months. It has affected children inthe community and has forced residents to stay in their homes for fear of developing asthma and other diseases.

"The dust coats our homes, and we're afraid it will coat our lungs," Shepherd said. "It has no place near homes, schools, and parks, not in southeast, not in any community.”

If the Keystone XL pipeline is approved, these Americans and millions more like them will continue to suffer at the hands of tar sands oil and all of the waste and contamination associated with it.

"If we continue with the status quo, we're in for a dangerous ride," Whitehouse said.

Senators Boxer and Whitehouse are writing a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry in hopes of changing that. Their goal is for the State Department to conduct a human health impact study on the tar sands and to determine once and for all what harm tar sands oil and Keystone XL is having on the health of Americans.

"Nothing less than the health of our families is at stake," Boxer said.

-Cindy Carr, Sierra Club Media Team

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