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Ignoring Enbridge spill lessons, State Dept. claims Keystone XL rupture would not impact public health

Image has not been found. URL: http://images.americanindependent.com/2010/08/MahurinEnviro_Thumb5.jpgThe U.S. State Department’s long-awaited final Environmental Impact Statement for the Keystone XL pipeline seems to overlook some of the lessons from last year’s Enbridge tar sands spill in Michigan.

The pipeline, planned by TransCanada, would transport 700,000 barrels per day of tar sands crude from northern Alberta through Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas to refineries on the Gulf of Mexico. Because the project involves crossing the U.S. border, it requires a Presidential Permit. The State Dept. (DOS) is in charge of deciding whether the project is in the national interest.

In a report released Friday, DOS acknowledged that a spill from the pipeline could kill animals but rejected the idea that it would harm people.

In considering the possible impact on wildlife, DOS wrote: “Some of the possible toxic effects include direct mortality, interference with feeding or reproductive capacity, disorientation, reduced resistance to disease, tumors, reduction or loss of various sensory perceptions, and interference with metabolic, biochemical, and genetic processes.”

It continued, “Crude oil spills are not likely to have toxic effects on the general public because of the many restrictions that local, state and federal agencies impose to avoid

environmental exposure after a spill.

This confidence in the ability of other governmental agencies to protect the public contrasts with the experiences of the people who live around the Kalamazoo River system where more than 800,000 gallons of tar sands crude spilled from an Enbridge pipeline last summer.

In that case it took county health officials three days to issue a voluntary evacuation order for part of the affected area due to benzene contamination in the air.

A survey by the Michigan Department of Community Health, conducted three weeks after the spill found that 60 percent of nearby residents experienced headaches, trouble breathing, vomiting or other health problems that MDCH attributed to the spill.

So far no public agency has undertaken a study of the long-term human health effects from the spill.

Other DOS assumptions about how a Keystone XL pipeline spill would play out seem at odds with what happened in the Enbridge spill — one of the largest tar sands oil spills in U.S. history.

Tar sands oil is different from other forms of crude oil. It’s as thick as peanut butter and must be diluted with lightweight chemicals to be liquid enough to move through pipelines.

In considering how tar sands oil would behave in spill, the DOS says,“the diluents in dilbit [diluted bitumen] are integrally combined with the bitumen to form a crude oil that is a homogenous mixture that does not physically separate when released.”

DOS also asserts that the potential for groundwater contamination is limited because the tar sands oil would initially float on water if spilled.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has criticized past DOS environmental reviews of the Keystone project for failing to consider the special challenges that a tar sands spill might present. The final environmental review does not delve into this.

More than a year after the Michigan spill, 200 acres of river bottom remain covered with submerged oil and EPA officials say they are just beginning to learn about the unique difficulties of removing tar sands oil from a river environment.

A major concern of critics of the Keystone XL pipeline is its potential to leak into and damage the Ogallala aquifer which supplies 78 percent of the public water supply in Nebraska and a third of all the water used for irrigation in the U.S.

According to John Stansbury, University of Nebraska professor of environmental engineering who recently published an independent risk analysis of the pipeline: “Even a small, undetected leak from an underground rupture of the pipeline in the Nebraska Sandhills could pollute almost 5 billion gallons of groundwater with benzene at concentrations exceeding safe drinking water levels.”

The DOS report downplays the risk to the Ogallala. Though it acknowledges that the pipeline would be less than ten feet away from the aquifer for about 65 miles of the proposed route in Nebraska, the DOS said that no spill scenario involved the contamination of the entire Ogallala.

In comments on previous versions of the State Department’s environmental review of the project, the EPA asked DOS to consider the project’s environmental impacts on poor and minority communities along its route.

Though the DOS says that it’s unlikely that public health will be affected by a spill it acknowledges that lack of access to health care means that low-income and minority communities could suffer more than most in a spill scenario.

“Exposure pathways could include direct contact with the crude oil, inhalation of airborne contaminants, or consumption of food or water contaminated by either the crude oil or components of the crude oil,” according to DOS.

DOS writes that concern about this potential disparate impact was addressed by TransCanada promises to clean up spills and develop signs and emergency communications in Spanish.

EPA also asked DOS to consider how refining tar sands oil from the new pipeline would affect the poor and Latino residents that live around the refineries in Texas. DOS dismissed this issue by treating increased processing of crude oil as inevitable.

The refineries that are likely to receive oil transported by the pipeline are already configured to process heavy crude oil, and in the future would seek to continue processing heavy crude oil whether or not the proposed pipeline is constructed. The … proposed Project would not likely affect the overall quality or quantity of crude oil refined in the Gulf Coast region, and, as a result, would not likely effect refinery emissions.

Critics of the Keystone project point out that tar sands oil produces more greenhouse gas emissions than other types of oil.

DOS acknowledged that displacing other oil with tar sands oil from the Keystone project would increase greenhouse gas emissions by “between 3 and 21 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually.”

It added, “This range is equivalent to annual greenhouse gas emissions from the combustion of fuels in 588,000 to 4,061,000 passenger vehicles.”

DOS said this particular pipeline will not impact overall greenhouse gas emissions because market forces will demand increased use of tar sands.

It also suggested the greenhouse-gas gap between tar sands and other oil may diminish over time: “… [C]urrent projections suggest that the amount of energy required to extract all crude oils is projected to increase over time due to the need to extract oil from ever deeper reservoirs using more energy intensive techniques. However, while the greenhouse gas intensity of reference crude oils may trend upward, the projections for the greenhouse gas intensity of Canadian oil sands crude oils suggests that they may stay relatively constant.”

The release of the environmental review kicks off a 90-day public comment period.

A final decision on the permit for the pipeline is expected by the end of the year.

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