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March 14, 2014

Nurses Say No To Tar Sands

Photo courtesy of Cindy Carr
                 Senator Boxer, center, with the representatives of National Nurses United.

The Senate was buzzing yesterday about the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.

If approved, the highly controversial pipeline would transport 830,000 barrels of corrosive crude oil each day from the tar sands of Alberta, Canada to refineries in places like Port Arthur, Texas. To put that in perspective, it would be the equivalent of building 46 new coal burning power plants.

Tar sands that are already being transported in the U.S. have resulted in major problems, including pipeline leaks, petcoke dust, and increased rates of rare cancers near extraction sites.

That’s a health and national security risk we can’t afford for ourselves, our future generations, or our planet. Luckily, climate and public health champions like Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) recognize these hazards and are sticking up for our families and our planet.

Two weeks ago, Sen. Boxer hosted a press event where citizens and medical professionals who live near each part of the Keystone XL pipeline process, from extraction to waste removal, testified about the harmful effects tar sands oil is already having on their health and their communities. They called for a comprehensive human health impact study to determine the real costs of building the pipeline.

Sen. Boxer echoed that sentiment again yesterday when she invited five nurses from National Nurses United (NNU), the largest union and professional association of nurses in the country, to speak to the health effects they see in their patients on a daily basis as a result of the tar sands.

The nurses hailed from all across the country, representing 185,000 nurses nationwide, and their message was clear: we cannot authorize a pipeline that harms our planet and the health of our families.

“It’s a nightmare,” Boxer said. “Is it in the national interest to keep our people healthy? Yes.”

Karen Higgins, a Boston-based nurse and NNU co-president, agreed with Sen. Boxer that building the KXL pipeline is not in our nation’s best interest, citing the epidemic proportions of asthma in the U.S. as well as increased rates of cancer, leukemia, skin and eye issues, and nervous system damage as a result of tar sands production.

Kari Columbus, a nurse from Kansas City, Kansas, sees the impacts of tar sands daily on herself, her children and her patients.

“We need to look at the long term consequences as a whole,” she said. “It seems like they’re more concerned about money than they are the people that are affected.”

Rolanda Watson, a Chicago nurse, has seen an increase in respiratory diseases as a result of the plumes of petcoke dust that swirl around the Windy City. Petcoke, also called Petroleum Coke, is the waste leftover after tar sands are refined. The waste is then stored in open-air pits where it is free to blow about the city and is inhaled by unsuspecting people.

“Lung diseases decrease the ability to fight other diseases,” Watson said. “I am urging stricter regulations and stricter fines for the companies that violate them.”

Brenda Prewitt, a Houston-based nurse, has seen what these types of pollution do to our children. Houston is already home to various refineries for everything from tar sands to chemicals. The addition of the KXL pipeline will increase the amount of oil being refined, thus increasing the amount of pollution in the air and water.

“Our children are our future,” Prewitt said. She cited a study by the University of Texas School of Public Health that revealed “children who live within two miles of the Houston Ship Channel have a 56 percent greater chance of getting leukemia than children living elsewhere.”

The Houston Ship Channel would refine the tar sands and pollute the air even more, a health risk the children there can’t afford.

Rounding out the group was Katy Roemer, a California nurse who lives near the Richmond, Calif. tar sands refinery. She sees the health effects in her patients and in the 25,000 people who live near the refinery.

“We can and must do better for our planet and all who live here,” Roemer said. “Do not approve the Keystone XL pipeline unless you can prove it won’t harm our communities, patients, families, and environment.”

“People need to hear these voices,” Sen. Boxer added. “These are the people who take care of our families and see mistakes from policies.”

The nurses have launched a petition to make sure their voices are heard by Secretary Kerry.

That’s also why Sen. Boxer brought the nurses’ fight to the forefront during today’s Senate Foreign Relations committee hearing on Keystone XL. The Sierra Club’s executive director Michael Brune and renowned climate scientist James Hansen were among the speakers today who opposed Keystone XL.

“The sad truth is that the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline is all risk and no reward,” Brune said.

“We’re going to leave our young people a climate system that is spiraling out of control,” Hansen said. “We're all on the same boat, we'll all either sink together, or find a way to float together.”

“I know this is an uphill battle,” Sen. Boxer said to conclude her press conference. “I’ve had that before. [But] ask any American if increasing the leukemia risk for children is worth it. They’d say no.”

--Cindy Carr, Sierra Club Media Team


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