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March 21, 2014

The Environmental Injustice of Keystone XL


By Hilton Kelley, Founder and Executive Director, Community In-Power & Development Association

We believe the Keystone XL pipeline is a bad idea for many reasons. One is that in order to clear the path for the pipeline, people's land is being taken away in six states in the name of eminent domain, all the way from Canada to the Gulf Coast. This pipeline will in no way benefit the masses; it's the Big Oil corporations who will benefit.

This pipeline would cross over aquifers that supply drinking water to millions of people, as well as about 30 percent of the ground water used for irrigation in the United States. In Texas, our chief concern is that we will be the ones receiving the tar sands crude, which is heavy in sulfur, benzene -- a known carcinogen -- and heavy metals. Levels of toxic emissions will definitely increase, and the low-income communities of color near the refineries in Port Arthur and Houston will bear the brunt of the pollution. Air pollution from the Port Arthur refineries is already taking a toll on public health in the surrounding community, including high rates of asthma, bronchitis, and other respiratory ailments.

The oil industry is also likely to have more many more shutdown incidents if Keystone XL is built because of the nature of tar sands crude -- it's so heavy and viscous. Two companies in Texas, Valero and Motiva, are already receiving some tar sands crude by rail. But if the pipeline is built it will be pumped in constantly -- 300,000 barrels per day -- to Port Arthur and Houston.

In Port Arthur we already have a disproportionate amount of toxics in the environment, and the KXL pipeline will only add insult to injury. Too many of our residents here suffer from cancer. Too many of our kids are dealing with respiratory problems. One out of every five households has a child or someone in the household who needs to use a nebulizer or take breathing treatments before they go to bed at night or before they go to school. That's not right.

We represent the area of least resistance to the oil companies because we're a low-income community of color. It's the same deal in the Houston area -- that branch of the pipeline would bring tar sands crude to refineries in a low-income community in Deer Park, just east of Houston. Environmental justice organizer Juan Paras has been doing the same kind of work in Deer Park that I'm doing in Port Arthur, working with T.E.J.A.S. (Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services).


We've partnered with Earthjustice, working closely with them in Washington, D.C., and advocating on a national level about why Keystone XL is not good for our community -- or any community. Last year I marched with Bill McKibben, the co-founder of 350.org, and Michael Brune, the Sierra Club's executive director, in the Forward on Climate march, the biggest mass march in the history of the environmental justice movement. Nearly 50,000 people from around the country converged on the national mall in Washington to tell President Obama that this is a national movement, and we don't need Keystone XL.

On MSNBC recently, I spoke about the devastating health impacts on communities near refineries, and the fact that Keystone XL will not create a significant number of new jobs. Construction companies say building the pipeline will create jobs, but only about 300, and they'd all be temporary. Then there's the fact that the refined oil from tar sands crude is designed to be shipped overseas, not consumed domestically, so it won't help us become more energy independent. But our community in Port Arthur, and the people living near the Deer Park refineries in Houston, will have to bear the brunt of the health consequences.

For the damage it will cause to human health alone, it's just not worth it to build this pipeline -- and that's just one of the many reasons President Obama should deny the permit to build Keystone XL.  Tar sands crude is the dirtiest form of oil there is. We need to create clean-energy jobs, not jobs that will tie us to a fossil fuel economy.

There's so much opportunity if we put ourselves on a path to clean energy. The race is on to develop renewable energy, build solar panels and solar arrays, build wind turbines and wind farms. Why can't we focus on renewables instead of scraping the bottom of the barrel to get a dirty, polluting form of crude oil that destroys the land and harms public health? It's time that we did more to help heal and clean up overburdened communities instead of bringing more toxic materials to those areas. Enough is enough.


Hilton Kelly is the North American recipient of the 2011 Goldman Environmental Prize. Read more about his work in this Sierra magazine article by Bruce Selcraig, a native of the Texas Gulf Coast.

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