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August 20, 2013

Sierra & Tierra: Adding Insult to Injury

By Javier Sierra 

The story is as old as it is sad for Manchester, the most polluted barrio of Houston, one of the country’s most polluted cities.

This 90-percent Latino community is literally surrounded by petrochemical facilities that spew at least eight carcinogens into the air. The levels of one of them, benzene, are so high that living in Manchester is tantamount to being stuck in traffic 24/7.

Harris County, where Manchester lies, is the country’s No. 1 emitter of industrial carcinogens.

The Manchester barrio in Houston (Photo by Elizabeth Brossa)

And as if this asphyxiating situation were not enough, Big Oil is planning to build in Manchester the terminal of the Keystone XL pipeline, which will transport tar sands crude —the most toxic on planet Earth— from Alberta, Canada, to this Latino barrio.

“The refineries in Texas are already equipped to process the tar sands,” says Juan Parras, executive director of T.E.J.A.S. (Texas Environmental Justice and Advocate Services), an environmental justice advocacy group. “We have been very actively engaged with the organizations protesting the construction of this terminal.”

For Yudith Nieto, an activist with Tar Sands Blockaders, another group opposing this project, the terminal adds insult to an especially painful injury.

“The tar sands being transported by Keystone XL will be processed by refineries already violating federal safety and emissions regulations,” she says. “I oppose Keystone XL and will continue to do so as long as it is bringing suffering to all peoples on all fronts of this monster.”

Even though the pipeline project by TransCanada Corp. is still just a proposal, the transportation of tar sands crude has already proven to be an extremely dangerous enterprise.

In 2010, a pipeline burst close to Marshall, Michigan, dumping 840,000 gallons of tar sands crude into the Kalamazoo River, the worst accident of its type in US history. Three years and $1 billion in cleaning costs later, there still are close to 200,000 gallons of oil in the river. It turns out tar sands crude is extraordinarily hard to clean and recover because it sinks and sticks to the bottom of rivers and other bodies of water.

In March, another tar sands pipeline broke open in Mayflower, Arkansas, prompting the evacuation of dozens of residents who saw their streets turned into rivers of crude oil. Today, Mayflower remains practically deserted and the cleaning continues.

The Keystone XL approval process also fails to pass the smell test. The State Department, the one in charge of evaluating the merits of the project, issued a report in March concluding that Keystone XL’s environmental impact would be minimal. Shortly thereafter, it was revealed that the ERM Group, one of the companies participating in the evaluation process, was far from neutral in the outcome of their analysis. ERM is a dues-paying member of the American Petroleum Institute, a major proponent of the project, and many of their staff have close connections to TransCanada. Not only did ERM fail to notify the State Department of these conflicts of interest, but State tried to cover them up when they did find out. The scandal has forced the Department to launch an investigation into their review process.

Moreover, in Manchester, LyondellBisell, one of the refineries contracted to process the Keystone XL tar sands crude, has already been hit with a $4.7 billion dollar fine for violations to public health regulations in several facilities throughout the country.

“Why should this kind of oppression be normalized?” wonders Yudith. “If President Obama has sincere intentions on implementing his climate action plan, he will not allow the Keystone XL pipeline to be built."

The President has already warned that the project will go forward “only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.”

The President is expected to announce his decision in the next months. In the meantime, the fight against Keystone XL is also our fight. Building such a terminal would add insult not only to Manchester’s injury, but the whole Latino community’s.

Javier Sierra is a Sierra Club columnist. Follow him on Twitter @javier_SC

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