By: Sen. Barbara Boxer
February 26, 2014 – We are here today to share dramatic new information that will shine a spotlight on the health impacts of tar sands oil – health impacts that are already being felt in communities exposed to one of the filthiest kinds of oil on our planet.
The Keystone XL pipeline will allow 830,000 barrels of tar sands oil every day to flow through our nation – an initial increase of 45 percent compared to what is being imported today – and this project could just be the beginning. In the long term, it is projected that Canada would produce almost 300 percent more tar sands oil by 2030.
I believe the health impacts of tar sands oil are being ignored. Last month, the State Department released the Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the Keystone XL pipeline, and it lays out some of the reasons why the pipeline would worsen climate change, including that operation of the pipeline would be the equivalent of adding 300,000 more cars on our roads each year. But the EIS was woefully inadequate when it came to exploring the human health impacts of the pipeline.
Today we will connect the dots between the health risks and tar sands. We will hear from people about how their communities have been or would be harmed along each step of the toxic tar sands oil process — from the extraction to the transport to the refining to the waste disposal.
Dr. John O’Connor, a doctor in Alberta, Canada, will talk about how his patients have been impacted by tar sands extraction. Just two months ago, a man named John Chadi was diagnosed with an extremely rare and incurable cancer of the bile duct. This is a tragic situation for John and his family, but it is also very frightening for his community, which is located downstream from a major tar sands extraction site in Alberta. There are other cases in Fort Chipewynn of this extremely rare type of cancer, and several other suspected cases over the past decade. The rate for this cancer is 30 percent higher than average in Fort Chipewyan, where elevated levels of carcinogens and mercury have been documented.
After tar sands are extracted, they must be processed, and the refinery stage also poses health risks. Dr. Stuart Batterman, a Professor from the University of Michigan, will tell us about his research which found significantly higher levels of dangerous air pollutants and carcinogens downwind from a tar sands refinery near Edmonton, Alberta. He will explain how in the areas where elevated levels have been reported, people are suffering higher rates of the types of cancers linked to these toxic chemicals, including leukemia and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
We need to clearly understand that as tar sands oil flows to our Gulf Coast refineries, it will increase the toxic pollution that already plagues communities like Port Arthur, Texas, which is near many refineries that will process tar sands. As we will hear from Hilton Kelley, a community representative, Port Arthur is on the EPA’s list of cities with dangerous ozone levels, and its residents suffer from asthma, respiratory ailments, skin irritations, and cancer. Tar sands will add another threat to Port Arthur and other communities that are already in distress.
To get to the Gulf Coast, tar sands will be transported by pipeline through communities in environmentally sensitive areas in 6 states. We know from experience how harmful this can be, because tar sands oil is very difficult to clean up when a spill occurs.
In 2010, a pipeline ruptured and spilled over a million gallons of tar sands oil into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan. This was the largest inland oil spill in U.S. history, and more than three years later, it is still not cleaned up. One resident living near the Kalamazoo River had to abandon her home because the stench from the spill made her feel dizzy and nauseous – classic signs of acute exposure to tar sands oil. Another resident who was pregnant reported having trouble breathing. “My eyes were burning, and my nose was burning. It smelled like a diesel tanker had turned over in front of my house.”
The final step in this tar sands chain is the disposal of waste byproduct that is produced when tar sands is refined into oil. It leaves behind petroleum coke, known as “pet coke,” which is a black dust containing concentrated heavy metals. Open piles of this waste began appearing at unprecedented levels in Midwestern communities last year, and it has sparked health and environmental concerns in many neighborhoods in Detroit and Chicago.
We will hear from Tom Sheppard about a Chicago neighborhood that experienced billowing clouds of black grit blowing off the mountains of pet coke. At a baseball field located a block away from one of the piles, little league players were forced to quickly take cover. According to one newspaper, “Kids that were playing ball were sent scurrying away because the stuff was getting into their eyes and their face and their mouths and everything . . . They had to just get the heck out of here.”
Residents felt they could not safely open windows during the summer for fear that the black clouds would trigger their children’s asthma. And with good reason – we know this type of toxic air pollution can increase the number and severity of asthma attacks, cause or aggravate bronchitis, and contribute to other lung diseases.
So I have shown you how health miseries follow tar sands – from extraction to transport to refining to waste disposal.
Many voices have weighed in on the Keystone XL pipeline, and I have said repeatedly that the pipeline is bad for the environment, will worsen the impacts of climate change, and will provide only 35 permanent jobs according to the Environmental Impact Statement.
Last week, a state court in Nebraska found the state acted illegally in determining the route of the Keystone XL pipeline. And serious questions have been raised about a consulting firm that worked on the EIS and a potential conflict of interest because of its financial ties to TransCanada, the company seeking to build the pipeline.
Clearly much more needs to be done before any final decision is made. Ultimately, the decision will be based on whether the XL pipeline is in the national interest, but we need to slow down long enough to get the real answer to the question. Today I ask how are more Americans with asthma in the national interest? How are more Americans with cancer in the national interest? How is it in the national interest when kids playing baseball have to duck and cover from dangerous pollution?
Children and families in the U.S. have a right to know now — before any decision to approve the Keystone tar sands pipeline — how it would affect their health.
That is why I am writing today to Secretary Kerry asking that the Obama Administration analyze the public health risks to our communities from the pipeline. I am asking them to complete a comprehensive human health impacts study and give us the time we need to analyze it. Nothing less than the health of our families is at stake.