Ever since President Obama announced that the Keystone XL pipeline would be in the national interest only if it “does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution,” the project has been scrutinized primarily on those terms. But there are other concerns to factor into an analysis of the project’s costs and benefits, particularly the local effects on communities along the pipeline route, from the tar sands in Alberta to refineries in Texas.
“I believe the health impacts of tar sands oil are being ignored,” Senator Barbara Boxer warned at a press conference Wednesday, where she and Senator Sheldon Whitehouse called on the Obama administration to conduct a thorough review of potential public health implications of extracting, transporting and refining oil from the tar sands before making a decision about the pipeline. Although the State Department finalized the environmental assessment of the project last month, Boxer said the report “was woefully inadequate when it came to exploring human impacts of the pipeline.” (The State Department had not responded to a request for comment at press time.)
Those impacts include rising cancer rates in places like Fort Chipewyan, a First Nations community downstream from a major tar sands site in Alberta; air pollutants and carcinogens in neighborhoods where refineries will process the oil, like Port Arthur and Manchester in Texas; immediate safety risks from transporting corrosive crude; and mountains of pet coke, an oil sands’ byproduct, which are growing throughout the Midwest. Much of this risk would be born—and is already being born—by poor people of color. Port Arthur, for example, has a 26 percent poverty rate, compared to 17 percent in the rest of Texas; three-quarters of the residents are of color. Manchester, a predominantly Latino community, is already one of the most polluted neighborhoods in the country.
“Health miseries follow tar sands—from extraction to transport to refining to waste disposal,” said Boxer. “Children and families in the US have a right to know now—before any decision to approve the Keystone tar sands pipeline—how it would affect their health.”
The State Department has been criticized before by lawmakers and the Environmental Protection Agency for failing to properly assess the health threats posed by KXL. “We’re at a point where health issues are often glossed over,” said Danielle Droitsch, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council and co-author of a report on the health effects of tar sands crude. Part of the problem is that there isn’t a substantial body of research into whether oil from the tar sands impacts health differently than traditional crude. “At a minimum we’re going to have to study this a little bit further. Frankly, there’s enough out there to suggest this stuff is actually worse, and that what we really need to do is transition away to cleaner sources,” Droitsch said.