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The Truth About Tar Sands

Denée Reaves’s Blog, 2/28/14

Photo: Joshua Axelrod

I recently had the pleasure of attending one of the most important press briefings that has happened in a long time: Senator Barbara Boxer-Keystone Pipeline and the Threat to Human Health.  The briefing took place at the Dirksen Senate Building and featured Senator Boxer (D-CA), Senator Whitehouse  (D-RI), health experts, and community leaders dealing with this issue firsthand from around the country and Canada. The main message of this briefing was that people need to know the truth about tar sands and its effects on people’s health.

Senator Boxer began the briefing strong in her stance that while people have been paying close attention to the climate effects tars sands development will have, they have not adequately addressed the already existing and potentially growing health effects. She also touched on the lack of satisfactory analysis offered by the State Department’s Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement on health effects of proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. She stated that she would use “any tool at her disposal’ to get the truth out about tar sands. Senator Boxer concluded by informing the room that she and Senator Whitehouse would be sending a letter to Secretary Kerry around this issue.

The leading lady was followed up by some phenomenal community leaders and experts. Dr. John O’Connor, an Alberta physician who treats people from Fort McMurray and Fort Chipewyan where tar sands are extracted, spoke about growing health problems.  Dr. O’Conner has seen an increase in rare and unusual cancers in his patients in Fort Chipewyan.  He has also been a voice on this issue for quite some time but has been vilified by the Canadian government and oil industries for voicing these concerns. Yet he has not given up. Yesterday he eloquently stated that he has no political agenda on this issue, he just wants to advocate for his patients.

Tom Shepherd, a local community leader representing the Southeast Environmental Task Force in Chicago, spoke about the health effects of petroleum coke (pet coke for short), which is a byproduct after tar sands oil is refined.  Pet coke piles five stories high are in Tom’s community. Shepherd told a heart-wrenching story of children who had to evacuate a little league field because billows of black soot from the pet coke piles were blowing into their eyes and on their skin, and that in the summer residents must shut their windows to prevent this soot from entering their houses. He stated that Chicago should stand as a warning to others about the dangers of tar sands in all of its stages and that he hoped no community has to rally around these dangerous issues like his has been forced to.

Dr. Stuart Batterman, a Professor of Environmental Health Sciences from the School of Public Health at the University of Michigan, described his research on air pollutants and carcinogens in Edmonton Alberta. His findings have revealed that the significant increase in the pollution and the carcinogens produced by a local tar sands refinery have a direct impact on the community nearby that is suffering from higher rates of cancers linked to these chemicals.

Hilton Kelley from Port Arthur also shared his grief at the amount of suffering his community has faced due to the overwhelming number of refineries and industrial facilities located nearby. Founder and Director of Community In-Power Development Association (CIDA), Hilton has been driven to give voice to his community after seeing more and more children with cancer, young girls with problems in their fallopian tubes resulting in removal of ovaries and a chance at future children, and a people ravaged with respiratory diseases.

Later in the afternoon, NRDC and Sierra Club hosted another briefing for Senate staff where these exemplary people were able to go into more detail about their respective fights. And they were joined by Karen Higgins, Co-President of National Nurses United, one of the largest nurses’ unions in the country. Karen passionately spoke about her union’s fight against tar sands development. The union is concerned about the serious health effects caused by tar sands development and are fighting for their patients just as hard as Dr. O’Connor fights for his in Canada.

For me, the day was both sad and encouraging.  On the one hand, I learned about people facing the tragic health impacts from tar sands development, but on the other, I was encouraged because I met people who are fighting for their communities’ rights.

These different health crises are being faced today, before the Keystone XL pipeline has even been approved. Why would we want to worsen the state of health in our country by producing and funneling more of this harmful substance and its by-products? These problems are not going away and its time we faced them and made a change. Maybe these poignant words from Hilton Kelley’s poem “My Toxic Reality” will paint a clear picture for you of the struggle these activists are fighting against:

“I’m scared I’ll lose my job if to pollution I contest 
but if you died tonight would killers confess 
to the poison they put inside you that laid you down to rest 
would your family have to fight to pay your doctor bills 
as you lay six feet under upon a grassy hill 
now your job is gone and your company grieving have faded 
your spouse and kids tried to collect from them 
but they said your death was not job related”

 -Hilton Kelley
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