Keystone XL Pipeline
Photo credit: shannonpatrick17 / Wikimedia (CC BY 2.0) and Meclee / Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

President Donald Trump has reversed Barack Obama’s decision on Keystone XL and given a green light to the construction of the controversial pipeline. The project would accomplish very little of what Trump promised but can cause a lot of problems.

President Donald Trump’s announcement that he approved the controversial Keystone XL pipeline was welcome news for a Canadian company, foreign steel manufacturers, some rich guys, anybody who thinks the planet should be warmer and 35 ordinary Americans. It’s not a good deal for the rest of the country.

“This announcement is part of a new era of American energy policy that will lower costs for American families — and very significantly — reduce our dependence on foreign oil, and create thousands of jobs right here in America,” Trump said Friday.

What the president did not say is that the vast majority of the jobs created by the construction of the pipeline will be temporary. A 2014 State Department study indicated that Keystone XL would create only 35 permanent jobs.

As WhoWhatWhy has shown, that is not the only issue with the pipeline. We thought that Trump’s announcement provided a good opportunity to revisit our previous coverage, which identified many of the problems that make the construction of Keystone XL a terrible decision on many levels.

This is Part 1 of a 2-part Series

(See Part 2 here: A Cautionary Tale—Tar Sands Oil and Health)

Debate continues to rage over whether the Obama administration should approve TransCanada Corporation’s contentious Keystone XL pipeline.

Meanwhile, little attention has focused on the impact of tar sands oil spills in far-flung states. Two accidents, in Arkansas and Michigan, raise largely unaddressed questions about the true cost to human health and the environment — and the high cost and difficulty of cleanup. But there are other issues as well, ranging from the political and economic impact to the behavior of the corporations involved to the very nature of the substance itself.

mayflower_tar_sands_oil_spill_EPAPipe Dreams — or Nightmares?

The more recent of these disasters came on March 29, when a 22-foot gash opened in ExxonMobil’s 65-year-old Pegasus pipeline. It dumped some 210,000 gallons of tar sands oil into the streets of Mayflower, Arkansas, and into nearby Lake Conway.

More than six months after that lake of viscous tar sands crude engulfed a subdivision, many homes — both within the core spill area and at the periphery — stand deserted.

Among the few inhabitants who remain are those too old or too poor to leave, while many others simply have no place else to go. The streets are dotted with For Sale signs that beckon no buyers. Many people are ill, suffering from respiratory problems, chronic headaches, debilitating fatigue and other complaints.

Environmental scientist Wilma Subra says the symptoms are consistent with known effects from exposure to petroleum products — and to the volatile chemicals used to dilute the gummy Canadian oil so it can flow through a pipeline.

While cleanup continues, the legal battles have just begun. Among them are class action and civil suits, plus a lawsuit filed by the US Justice Department and the state of Arkansas for alleged violations of state and federal environmental laws, including the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts.

ExxonMobil Lied About What Spilled

For weeks after the spill ExxonMobil withheld crucial information about the nature of their product from state and local officials. The oil giant insisted it was conventional crude — which is cheaper and easier to clean up — while downplaying the amount and extent of contamination. Early on, company officials claimed that nearby Lake Conway was oil-free — though internal emails showed that they knew otherwise.



The March 2013 Exxon Tar Sands Spill in Mayflower, Arkansas

A Billion Dollar Spill?

Far to the north, 40 miles of Michigan’s Kalamazoo River shimmer with a slick rainbow sheen. It’s the toxic legacy of the largest, most expensive onshore oil spill in US history.

On July 26th, 2010, Enbridge Energy’s “Line B” pipeline ruptured, belching over a million gallons of tar sands oil into a field near Marshall, Michigan. Some of that flowed into nearby Talmadge Creek and on into the Kalamazoo—sites of previous industrial dumping and heroic cleanup efforts.

Three years later, so much heavy Canadian crude still coats parts of the river bottom that last March, the  the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ordered Enbridge to resume dredging the river.

The agency estimates that perhaps 180,000 gallons remain submerged, “plus or minus 100,000 gallons.” Federal fines of $3.7 million pale beside actual cleanup costs, which now exceed a billion dollars.

Enbridge contends it spilled a mere 843,000 gallons — although EPA evidence shows far more. The company waited a week to disclose that the spill was not ordinary oil, but instead thick tar sands oil. Some 320 people have reported health problems, and litigation is ongoing in a host of lawsuits.

Capture2Oil and Water…

Even these accidents, however awful the consequences for local residents, fail to paint a picture of the potential for catastrophe in the Keystone XL Pipeline project.

If completed, this pipeline would funnel nearly 35 million gallons of Canadian tar sands oil — a day — from Alberta to Texas Gulf Coast refineries.  Along that 1,179-mile route, the line would cross six states in America’s heartland, and traverse the Ogallala Aquifer that provides drinking water for two million people.

Though the location of oil and gas pipelines is public information, neither TransCanada nor the State Department has revealed Keystone XL’s exact route. But the general path is clear. Keystone will cross a remarkable 1,748 bodies of water in all, including the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers.

In an accident, numerous toxic chemicals would be released, including benzene, a known human carcinogen. One at-risk ecosystem, Nebraska’s fragile Sandhills region, lies along the Keystone route, with ancient dunes so permeable that nearly 100 percent of rainfall enters the shallow Ogallala Aquifer. This means that a relatively minor spill can have major consequences.


While spills are the most immediate threat posed by the pipeline, much of the Keystone debate has focused on climate change. NASA climatologist James Hansen has called Canadian oil sands crude “one of the dirtiest, most carbon-intensive fuels on the planet.”

How bad? It emits 14 to 20 percent more greenhouse gases than conventional crude, according to a congressional report. But the environmental group Rainforest Action Network (RAN) says it’s much, much worse:

Tar sands oil is the worst type of oil for the climate, producing three times the greenhouse gas emissions of conventionally produced oil because of the energy required to extract and process tar sands oil. . . increased greenhouse gas emissions associated with tar sands development is the main reason Canada will not meet its Kyoto reduction commitments.

Tar Sands Toxic WasteOil or “Molasses”

Tar sands oil should not be confused with conventional crude. Alberta’s oil is a gelatinous mix of tarry petroleum and sand, known as diluted bitumen or “dilbit.” It’s often likened to asphalt: it is so thick and gooey that it won’t flow through a pipeline on its own. For transport, it’s thinned with liquefied natural gas and a range of chemicals, some of which are extremely toxic.

It’s far stickier than other petroleum products — and it sinks in water, which is why oil sands spills are extremely difficult to clean up, said Stephen K. Hamilton, a Michigan State University aquatic ecology professor who’s advising the state and the EPA on the cleanup in Marshall. “The bitumen reverts to its molasses-like nature once the diluent evaporates, and is nearly impossible to remove from surfaces…and river banks,” he said. “The EPA estimates that a significant fraction of the spilled oil remains in the sediments even after all the time and money invested in cleanup, and I am sure we will never get it all out.”

pegasus-oil-spill-arkansas-exxonDirty Oil, Dirty Politics

Legally, bitumen is not even considered oil. In 2011, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) ruled that “the term ‘crude oil’ does not include “synthetic petroleum.” That distinction exempts Enbridge, ExxonMobil, TransCanada and other companies that transport tar sands crude from paying the 8-cents-per-barrel petroleum excise tax. Thus, the companies shipping a substance that’s more toxic and harder to clean up than standard petroleum products do not even have to pay into the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund, which was created by Congress in 1986 and enacted four years later in response to the Exxon Valdez disaster.

Cleanup of the massive Deepwater Horizon oil spill and a host of smaller accidents drained the fund to risky levels, according to a Government Accountability Office report. As of March 2011, the fund had shelled out $629.5 million for Deepwater. Liability for oil companies caps at $350 million; the fund covers the rest, up to a billion dollars per incident.

But tar sands oil gets a free ride, with transport companies putting nothing aside to help pay for pipeline breaks or other accidents.

The House Natural Resources Committee criticized the exemption, noting that “it is important that all oil companies be held responsible for the disasters associated with the products they sell and the taxpayers not be forced to pay the bills of cash rich oil companies.”

Indeed, keeping the exemption in place through 2017 would mean $409 million in lost revenue. With skyrocketing dilbit imports from Canada, it’s no small concern. The 220,000 barrels (42 gallons each) imported per day in 2000 jumped to over 650,000 barrels in 2011.  Producers hope to top 1.5 million barrels in the next six years, according to Canada’s National Energy Board. A series of major spills could bankrupt the fund—leaving taxpayers with a massive cleanup bill.

TransCanada’s environmental assessment estimated that Keystone XL will discharge 11 “significant” spills of 2,100 gallons or more in the US over its 50-year lifespan. An independent analysis by Dr. John Stansbury, an engineer and professor at the University of Nebraska, presents a far more alarming scenario: up to 91 serious spills over that same period. His study includes key data omitted by TransCanada.

largeA Hazard to “Life, Liberty, and the Environment”

Pipelines break for many reasons, from advancing age and weak welds to natural disasters and construction accidents. But transporting heavy, toxic dilbit further increases stress on pipelines, according to a recent Cornell University study.

It’s 15 to 20 times more acidic than conventional heavy crude, with five to 10 times more sulfur. Because it’s so thick, it’s often pumped at higher temperatures and pressures than other petroleum products. Its varying composition and consistency bring large, frequent swings in pressure that can create new cracks or widen existing ones—a factor that may have played a role in ExxonMobil’s Arkansas break.

And that was no isolated case. From 2007 to 2010, dilbit pipelines in the northern Midwest dumped three times more oil per mile than the national average for conventional crude. Since the Keystone’s Phase 1 pipeline opened in June 2010, there have been at least 35 incidents. It pumps dilbit from Alberta to refineries in Illinois, a line that breezed through the permitting process during the Bush Administration, with little public awareness.

The string of accidents prompted pipeline safety regulators to subsequently deem Keystone 1 a hazard to “life, property, and the environment” — and issue a “Corrective Action Order” to address multiple problems.

oilincreek “A Complete Breakdown of Safety”

Regulators realized in the late 1990s that pipeline operators were losing control of their systems, says Richard Kuprewicz, president of the engineering consulting company Accufacts, Inc. and adviser to the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA). Minimum safety guidelines were updated back then, but now, he says, “we’re seeing a rash of ruptures.There’s no doubt that there’s something wrong with current pipeline safety regulations.”

In a recent speech to oil and gas pipeline compliance officers, PHMSA associate administrator Jeffrey Wiese admitted that the regulatory process he oversees is “kind of dying” and that his office has “very few tools to work with” in enforcing safety rules. “Do I think I can hurt a major international corporation with a $2 million civil penalty? No,” he said.

Before they failed, both the Mayflower and Marshall lines were known to have developed cracks. The defect that caused the six-and-a-half-foot hole in Enbridge’s Line 6B was noticed at least three times, but both regulators and the company ignored it. Likewise, ExxonMobil Pipeline Co. inspected the section of Pegasus that later burst in 2010 and again in early 2013. But again, nothing was done.

At a hearing on the Michigan spill in 2012, National Transportation Safety Board chairman Deborah Hersman stated, “This investigation identified a complete breakdown of safety at Enbridge,” and likened employees’ poor handling of the rupture to “Keystone Kops.”

Despite numerous alarms it took operators in Michigan nearly 12 hours to shut down the 30-inch wide pipeline. Another six hours passed before they located the spill site.

The transportation safety board also cited weak federal regulation and oversight of emergency procedures, and poor assessment and repairs of pipeline health.


Fast-Tracking the Pipelines

While TransCanada awaits a decision on Keystone XL, it’s unclear whether Exxon’s 858-mile Pegasus pipeline will reopen. The company hasn’t made public its plans for the line, which will require written permission from PHMSA to restart. Analysts conjecture that Pegasus may be in such poor shape that it will need significant repair — or that Exxon may be weighing construction of a new, larger replacement.

But other lines will soon be shipping tar sands products to the Gulf for refining and export. Enbridge plans to expand its Alberta Clipper pipeline from Canada to Wisconsin, which would carry up to 880,000 barrels a day, more than Keystone’s planned 830,000-barrel capacity.

The company’s 774-mile Trunkline is scheduled to go into operation in 2015, using converted gas lines that run from Patoka, IL, to St. James, LA. There is concern that these lines, which have been in the ground for years, were not built to current standards and may not be able to withstand the heavier load of tar sands oil. But these conversions are subject to fewer regulations and generally win swift approval.


The safety issue clearly gets short shrift. PHMSA, the entity charged with oversight, has been understaffed by an average of 24 employees each year between 2001 and 2009. And last year, it had funding for just 137 inspectors in total. That’s nowhere near enough to police the industry.

As a result, regulators are forced to essentially leave safety evaluations up to the companies — even allowing them to plan their own future pipeline routes. The two assessments submitted for Keystone XL were prepared with blatant conflicts of interest: one by a former client of TransCanada, and the second by a member of the American Petroleum Institute, the oil and gas industry’s largest U.S trade association. The EPA commented that the documents lacked needed information on water protection and an improved emergency response plan.


Americans Don’t Even Gain

Americans risk environmental catastrophe while gaining…next to nothing.

As the Rainforest Action Network notes:

Keystone XL is an export pipeline. In presentations to their investors, Gulf Coast refiners have revealed plans to refine Keystone’s Canadian crude into diesel and other products for export to Europe and Latin America. Proceeds from these exports are earned tax-free. Much of the fuel refined from the pipeline’s heavy crude oil will never reach U.S. drivers’ tanks.”

(More on this point from the environmental advocacy group Oil Change International, here.)

With Liberty and Justice for…Oil

The pressure from industry has been considerable. With well-funded publicity campaigns promoting “energy independence,” it’s not so surprising that in March 2012, President Obama signed an executive order expediting infrastructure permits that will fast-track oil and gas pipeline projects.

One of the loudest arguments for Keystone XL approval is job creation — a projected 20,000 construction and manufacturing jobs, according to TransCanada. But the Cornell Global Labor Institute examined their data and came up with a far lower estimate: somewhere between 2,500 and 4,650 temporary, direct jobs would come from pipeline construction over a two-year period.

In fact, the U.S. State Department estimates that the six states along the pipeline route will gain a total of just 20 permanent pipeline operation jobs. Meanwhile, with 571,000 agricultural workers employed in those states, a spill that poisons farmland and ground water could mean a significant economic hit, not to mention the potential harm to the region’s substantial tourism industry (which in South Dakota alone brings in $865 million a year).

If Obama is under pressure to hand the industry another fortune, imagine the pressure the Canadian leadership faces. Evidence of this was on display during a late September visit to New York City by Canada’s Conservative Prime Minister, Stephen Harper. In an unusually pugilistic stance for a Canadian, Harper declared that he “won’t take no for an answer” from his much larger neighbor to the south.

“The logic behind this project is simply overwhelming,” he said.  And he added (apparently drawing another bloated figure out of the north-of-the-border air), it “will create 40,000 jobs in the U.S.” His incentive to sell the project is clear enough: Canada’s share of U.S. crude oil imports rose to 38.7 percent in February, the highest in at least two decades, according to U.S. Energy Information Administration data.


As Kuprewicz, the engineering consultant, notes: “We’re not going to get rid of oil and gas pipelines, so we need to operate them safely.” But the question remains: Is shipping more tar sands oil into the US the wisest choice?

(Next: Part 2—A Cautionary Tale: Tar Sands Oil and Health)

The question of whether tar sands are hazardous to our health is growing stickier.

A final decision from the Obama administration on the Phase 4 construction of the much-debated Keystone XL pipeline remains on hold, stalled by legal challenges to its planned route through the state of Nebraska.

But other questions have been raised in Congress about the possible health effects that may result from pumping 35 million gallons a day of diluted bitumen — tar sands oil — through a pipeline every day from Alberta, Canada, through the heart of America to refineries on the Gulf Coast. And there are questions that are barely being asked or answered. Here, we take a look at some of them.


It has now been over a year since ExxonMobil’s Pegasus pipeline ruptured, immersing the Northwoods subdivision in Mayflower, Arkansas, and nearby Lake Conway in 210,000 gallons of Canadian heavy crude. Many residents are still suffering from serious health problems they blame on that spill.

A far larger spill in July 2010 dumped more than a million gallons of tar sands oil from an Enbridge Energy pipeline into yards, fields, and the Kalamazoo River in Marshall, Michigan. Citizens are still waiting for information on chemical exposure and health risks from the Michigan Department of Community Health — information that’s now three years overdue, according to Marshall resident Susan Connolly, a paralegal who testified at a Congressional hearing on the spill.

Dead fish in Lake Conway. By Genieve Long.

Dead fish in Lake Conway. By Genieve Long.

No one knows exactly which chemicals were in the oil that inundated these communities — nor do doctors, researchers or regulators know just how harmful they might be.

As we explained in Part 1 of this series, published in 2013, tar sands oil is not conventional crude. It’s a viscous mix of sand and tarry petroleum known as bitumen that is so thick that it must be diluted with liquefied natural gas and various chemicals so it can flow through a pipeline. Any of 1,000 chemicals may be used to make diluted bitumen, or “dilbit” — and companies are permitted by the government to conceal those formulas as trade secrets.

These unknowns prompted the U.S. Senate Environment Committee to request a “comprehensive study on the human health impacts of tar sands oil and the proposed pipeline.” In a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry in February, senators called the health information in the most recent State Department environmental review “woefully inadequate.” In April, a State Department official confirmed that they “will address health impacts” but did not talk about plans to start a broad independent health study.

Acute Exposure

On March 29, 2013, oil streamed from the ruptured pipeline and fumes enveloped Mayflower in a caustic petrochemical plume, sickening hundreds of people in this small working class community of 2,200 people. It smelled like asphalt, but worse, says Genieve Long, a mother of four who lives beside the lake. “The air was so thick it burned your lungs. It burned your eyes,” Long told WhoWhatWhy.

Crude oil contaminated 22 properties in the Northwoods subdivision; those families were evacuated, but neighbors who lived just a few hundred yards away or along oil-slicked Lake Conway were not. Many, including Arkansas’ Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, later questioned why everyone living in close proximity had not been removed.

Intense exposure sparked acute symptoms that for many, persisted for three to four months: Residents dry heaved or vomited for days on end; they suffered from bowel issues, endless migraines, nosebleeds, exhaustion, dizzy spells and confusion; their skin was covered in rashes that resembled chemical burns — and they gasped for breath.

It was a mirror image of what had happened to the citizens of Marshall, Michigan, after the Enbridge spill three years before. A state report found that nearly 60 percent of those living in the vicinity experienced the same health problems.

“These are classic symptoms of acute exposure to both airborne petrochemicals and to the chemicals used to liquefy the thick Canadian tar sands oil,” says Wilma Subra, an environmental scientist who works with communities impacted by oil spills. “There’s an entire population that’s been made very, very sick by the emissions.”

Limited Information

Because ExxonMobil barred news reporters from the area after the Arkansas spill, little information was available in the early days, said Ann Jarrell, who lived 300 yards from the site. Those who contacted police, the health department, or the company, she said, were repeatedly assured there was no danger.

The overpowering stench in their oil-soaked neighborhood prompted her daughter, Jennifer, to call the Mayflower police department: She was worried about her four-month-old infant. When she asked if they should evacuate, she was told that if there was no oil on their property, they should be fine—but both Ann and Jennifer were nauseous and coughed constantly, their heads pounding.


No government agency stepped forward to educate the public about health risks, and state officials told residents that contaminants in the air were “below levels likely to cause health effects for the general population” in an online press release. So even though they were sick, most people stayed in their homes, either because they’d been told to, couldn’t afford to leave, or simply had nowhere else to go.

In the event of an oil spill, there is little guidance from the federal government: There are no federal guidelines on when — or if — the public should be evacuated, nor protocols for evaluating public health after exposure. At a press conference, Attorney General McDaniel expressed concern about “the short- and long-term effects of carcinogens released into the air which are still detectable in the living rooms of people in that area.”

Five months after the spill, the state finally offered Mayflower residents free health assessments. For many, their problems had been compounded by the fact that most doctors have little training or experience diagnosing or treating chemical exposures. And though citizens pushed Exxon and the health department to establish a centrally located clinic and bring in specialists versed in occupational and environmental medicine, it never happened.

Lake Conway, slicked in oil. By Genieve Long

Lake Conway, slicked in oil. By Genieve Long

Long-term Effects

It’s hard to know what, if anything, to do about tar sands oil, since there are no data on the long-term health effects of exposure to it. And there are few efforts to correct that knowledge gap — so it’s difficult to assess what safety regulations are needed to properly protect the public.

Susan Connolly advocated for an ongoing epidemiological study of those who were affected in Marshall, but was repeatedly rebuffed. April Lane, an expert on the health effects of fossil fuels, also wanted to collect health data in Mayflower, but her request for federal funding was turned down. Without such studies, it is impossible to track the incidence of chronic illnesses or cancers that may result from living amidst an oil spill. Subra notes that these people are continually re-exposed.

For some Mayflower residents, pre-existing conditions have worsened. Others now suffer from chronic health issues that have appeared in the months since the spill. Among the more serious cases are people hospitalized with kidney infections or “chemical pneumonitis,” a type of pneumonia. “It’s not a ‘one size fits all,’” says Lane. “Each person reacts differently to toxins.”

Severe respiratory problems have repeatedly landed Jennifer Jarrell’s son, Logan, in the emergency room over the past year and he now uses a steroid inhaler twice daily to breathe. His grandmother Ann, lost her voice, her thyroid levels skyrocketed, and her headaches grew so intense that her doctor suspected a brain tumor and sent her for an MRI.


Genieve Long, who lives on Lake Conway, stayed because it was impossible to uproot four kids without any assistance. Six months post-spill, she mysteriously developed gallstones and kidney stones that weren’t there nine months earlier when she’d had diagnostic scans for something else. She was told that it should take years, not months, to develop stones as large as hers. Her question now: “What’s going to happen to me or my kids in 20 years?”

Though they no longer smell oil every day, whenever boaters disturb Lake Conway’s shallow waters, or windy, rainy weather stirs up the water, tar balls rise and petroleum rainbows slick the lake’s surface. The family’s early, acute symptoms return along with a metallic, chemical taste in their mouths. They start wheezing, they can’t think straight, and they’re again plagued by headaches. Long’s two youngest children have been left with poorly functioning lungs, she says, and struggle to breathe every day.

Residual dilbit is a big problem, especially around waterways. Unlike normal oil, heavy tar sands oil sinks. Once the diluting chemicals evaporate, it reverts to its original viscous state and is almost impossible to remove.

ExxonMobil’s remediation work in Lake Conway is still under way. And in Michigan, Enbridge’s cleanup efforts continue as the company struggles to remove the estimated 180,000 gallons of dilbit that remains submerged in the Kalamazoo River and its tributaries, which has already cost over a billion dollars, with a minimum of $22 million in fines still looming for Clean Water Act violations.

With Petrochemicals, How Little is Too Much?

Aaron Stryk, a spokesperson for ExxonMobil, told WhoWhatWhy that contractors hired by the company conducted “exhaustive” air sampling and continuous air quality tests in Mayflower. They tested for three substances: benzene, hydrogen sulfide, and total volatile organic compounds (VOCs). The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) also sampled air and monitored air quality, but only released data on total VOCs.

These grouped VOC readings don’t identify what chemicals are actually present in the air, nor their concentrations, says fossil fuels expert Lane. She explains that without identifying which chemicals are present — and in what amounts — it’s impossible to accurately gauge health risks.

Much of the focus was on benzene. It’s toxic in miniscule doses, and is known to cause leukemia and neurological problems and to lower immunity. In Mayflower, airborne benzene levels at the spill site averaged 0.6 parts per million, sometimes spiking to 2.2 parts per million.

There are dozens of government guidelines for benzene exposure. For example, Federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSD) standards estimate that people can breathe air containing 9 parts-per-billion (ppb) for up to two weeks — or 6 ppb for up to a year — without adverse health effects. However, these guidelines did not include cancer risk — even though benzene is a known carcinogen.

Moreover, public health decisions become the domain of county or state officials after an oil spill — though such decisions often fall well outside their experience or expertise. The variations are staggering. In Arkansas, the Department of Health established the benzene exposure threshold at more than five times ATSD standards: 50 parts per billion for up to a six-month period. Lori Simmons, who runs the agency’s environmental epidemiology department, said that residents could be exposed to these levels without long-lasting health problems.

Lake Conway, mired in oil. By Genieve Long

Lake Conway, mired in oil. By Genieve Long

Health experts, including Wilma Subra, April Lane and others, are concerned that the state’s “safe” levels were set too high to protect the public — and that the health department failed to issue special warnings for those who are the most vulnerable to chemical exposures: pregnant women, the elderly and young children.

Communities get sick even when the concentrations are well below the more stringent federal “acceptable standards,” says Subra, and monitoring protocols are frequently insufficient. State and federal agencies may rely on equipment that monitors only in the parts-per-million range, which for some substances is not sensitive enough.

A growing body of research shows that infinitesimal doses of some chemicals can have serious effects. Over the last few decades, scientists have discovered that low-dose toxins may disrupt endocrine functions that orchestrate everything from growth, development, reproduction, immunity and cognition to memory and metabolism. The unborn are particularly at risk: Exposure in-utero can interfere with the gene-controlled signaling systems that influence every aspect of fetal development.


Effects of early exposure may not appear until later in life, and damaging genetic changes can be inherited by future generations. Health problems caused by these “endocrine disruptors” is a problem of such growing global concern that it prompted research on the state of the science by the World Health Organization in 2012.

But most chemicals have never been safety-tested. When the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 (TSCA) was introduced, it grandfathered in some 60,000-plus existing chemicals, assuming they were safe until proven otherwise. Since then, the EPA has required testing of about 200 of them and has partially regulated just five.

Manufacturers have provided little if any information to the agency on the safety of 22,000 chemicals created since then. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group, TSCA makes it “nearly impossible for the EPA to take regulatory action against dangerous chemicals, even those that are known to cause cancer or other serious health effects.”

For a decade prior to his death last year, Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), fought to overhaul chemical safety laws. But the Chemicals in Commerce Act that was introduced in the House in February has drawn fire, with critics arguing that the proposed legislation would weaken current regulations by pre-empting state standards and allowing companies to conceal the chemicals used in their products.

In both Marshall and Mayflower another knowledge gap became glaringly obvious: There has been virtually no testing of either the cumulative effects of various chemicals — or their combined, synergistic effects — on the human body.

Trade Secrets May Endanger Public Health

It’s all a little like KFC and their secret recipe. Companies can legally withhold their “proprietary” dilbit formulas from regulators, including the EPA. Even the State Department’s 2013 Keystone XL environmental impact study lacked specific information on diluents: “The exact composition of the dilbit is not publicly available because the particular type of bitumen and diluents blend produced is variable and is typically a trade secret.”

That leaves the overseers in the dark. Carl Weimer, the executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust, says that though regulators have some knowledge of what’s being used to thin heavy crude, they don’t know the contents of any particular batch. Over 1,000 chemicals may be present in dilbit, depending on what’s cheapest at the time. Many are hazardous to humans.

Independent air samples taken by Lane and analyzed by Subra on the first four days following the Mayflower accident were found to contain 30 chemicals.

“Each of the 30 hydrocarbons measured in the Mayflower release is a toxic chemical on its own and may pose a threat to human health depending on exposure and individual factors,” said Neil Carman, a former Texas Commission on Environmental Quality inspector who now is a Clean Air Program director with the Sierra Club.

What else citizens were breathing may be anyone’s guess because of the limited testing done on the air samples, Lane says. Her monitoring charted high levels of benzene, potentially dangerous concentrations of n-hexane, octane, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which naturally occur in oil and tar deposits. Lower levels of butane, toluene, and other chemicals were also detected. Some of these are among the most toxic airborne chemicals regulated under the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990.

Heavy Metals in the Heavy Crude

Alberta’s tar sands oil also carries heavy metals in significantly larger concentrations than those in conventional oil: mercury, manganese, nickel and chromium, which are toxic at high doses, as well as arsenic and lead, which damage the nervous system at relatively low doses. The list of potential maladies from these chemicals and heavy metals is long and frightening.

In 2009, the Alberta Research Council, a government-funded research and development corporation focusing on energy, reported that the region’s bitumen had 10 times the chromium and 38 times the manganese as Canada’s standard crude oil.

Without testing, it’s unclear whether these metals and other chemicals in bitumen are seeping into dwellings, gardens, the water table, or are present in dust and soil — and if so, at what levels.

Water testing in an oil-soaked area of Lake Conway known as “the Cove” has repeatedly measured manganese in amounts exceeding EPA safety standards for drinking water. In some cases, it has tested at 30 times acceptable levels.

Rising Imports, Rising Risks?

Concerns about tar sands extend beyond just the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. Tar sands oil imports from Canada have tripled over the past decade, jumping from 9.2 million gallons per day in 2000 to more than 27.3 million gallons in 2011. Producers hope to double that in the next five years, according to Canada’s National Energy Board.

To transport Canada’s heavy crude from Alberta’s landlocked tar sands to American refineries, the U.S. is constructing, or repurposing, a plethora of existing oil and gas pipelines, some of which have been in use for decades — and were constructed for much lighter loads. So no one knows how well those pipes will handle the tar sands oil.

In part because of the controversy and delays over the pipeline, Exxon is already making other plans: Starting in 2015, it will ship Canadian oil by train out of a newly built terminal, up to 4.2 million gallons a day. Rail transport poses its own risks. The last three years have seen seven out of the nation’s worst 10 railroad oil spills — dumping 1.2 million gallons in 2013 alone.

The Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works recently raised the larger issue about bringing greater quantities of diluted bitumen into the U.S., though they were specifically questioning Keystone XL.

“We believe that putting more Americans at risk for asthma, cancer, and other serious health impacts is not in our national interest,” the senators wrote.

Residents of Mayflower understand the risks firsthand. “There’s no fence that stops toxins,” says Genieve Long. “We’re the collateral damage.”

Correction: The original article incorrectly stated that the entire Keystone XL pipeline’s construction is on hold. We have corrected the post to clarify that it’s Phase 4 which has been stalled by a legal challenge. 


Comments are closed.