Some times, government decides to allow people to be exposed to chemicals or harmful compounds before it knows whether our exposure is safe or will lead to illness and/or death. Some times government ignores the warning signs, refusing to connect the dots because some in power are focused on industry interests rather than the interests of ordinary people. This makes people the guinea pigs or subjects of "experiments" on the health impacts.  

It took decades of many warning signs of deleterious impacts on public health before our government adopted regulations banning lead in gasoline.  In 1921, General Motors attempted to persuade the public that tetraethyl lead (TEL), a fuel additive to improve engine performance and "reduce engine knock," was the "virtual savior of the American automobile industry."  Today, tar sands is "Canada’s big new bonanza" that will make it the "second largest reserves of oil in the world" if "it can exploit this relatively novel form of resource."

Unfortunately, glee over leaded gas took priority over the many danger signs, and we are seeing some of that same greedy glee over tar sands. In 1923, a chemist who contributed to developing TEL developed lead poisoning.  In 1924, workers "producing the additive fell sick and died at several refineries in New Jersey and Ohio. Banner headlines greeted each new fatality until a total of 15 workers had lost their lives -- and their minds.  Terrifying rumors circulated about the madness that had put some of the doomed into straitjackets before it put them six feet under. It was not long before journalists were calling leaded fuel "loony gas."

In 1925, the Surgeon General temporarily suspended the production and sale of leaded gas, appointing a panel to investigate the fatalities. Unfortunately, this panel was dominated by industry and limited to 7 months to "design, run, and analyze its tests." Not surprisingly, the panel ruled that there were not any good grounds for prohibiting the use of TEL if there were "proper regulations," but also warned that if the use of leaded gasoline becomes more widespread, then there might be more of a hazard.

The EPA did not impose any compulsory standards until the early 1970s when the adverse impacts to public health were now becoming obvious to all.  A study released in 1973 confirmed what prior studies had suggested:  Lead from automobile exhaust was a direct threat to public health. The EPA rationalizes that the "scientific evidence capable of documenting this conclusion did not exist in previous decades. Only very recently have scientists been able to prove that low-level lead exposure resulting from automobile emissions is harmful to human health in general, but especially to the health of children and pregnant women."  

A similar situation exists in Canada now with First Nation communities. For years, there have been increased cancer rates for First Nations (Athabasca Chipewyan, Fort McKay Metis,  and Mikesew Cree) communities in Canada, as well as impacts on water, fish and animals. Several studies have been conducted over the years, each suggesting a link between tar sands development and cancer and now a definitive study will soon be commenced. The U.S. has a legal, political and moral obligation to wait for the study results before deciding whether to approve the XL tar sands pipeline.

In 2006, a statistical analysis of cancer rates in Fort Chipewyan concluded that "cancer rates were not unusually higher than the rest of Alberta." Eriel Deranger, the communications co-ordinator for the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, (and special guest in our blogathon) said "the 2006 provincial study was flawed, because it did not include ill Fort Chipewyan residents who had moved to Fort McMurray, Edmonton or Calgary for treatment."

In 2007-2008, studies showed "high levels of deformities" in fish embryos exposed to tar sands and oil sands resulted in 12% of Alberta's forest soils reaching the limit of how much acid they could hold.  

Celina Harpe (Cree community of Fort MacKay) describes the increased cancer rates in 2007:

A 2009 study found "higher-than-expected rates of rare cancers in Fort Chipewyan, but no research to date has directly connected pollution from the oilsands to incidence of disease."  While health officials confirmed that there were "more cases of cancer than expected," they said that there was "no cause for residents to be alarmed."  However, a peer reviewer of the 2009 study was concerned with both the elevated cancer rates and the types of cancers because "almost all of the cancer types that were elevated have been linked scientifically to chemicals in oil or tar."

A 2010 study discovered deformed fish downstream from the oilsands. Some fish had golfball-sized tumors bulging outward, others were bent or crooked due to missing parts of their spines, or missing a snout, different colors, or covered with lesions.

In January 2013, a key study found that the "development of Alberta’s oil sands has increased levels of cancer-causing compounds in surrounding lakes well beyond natural levels."  The study found that tar sands oil production was polluting lakes with the cancer compounds "as far as 50 miles from the operations." The study also linked the cancer to tar sands development, nixing the industry argument of naturally occurring tar sands being the culprit.

The 2013 study warns of unknown long-term effects as "increasing amounts of the chemicals occur in freshwater lakes and are absorbed by fish, birds and up the food chain to humans." One researcher of this study stated his concern that "as the industry ramps up production, the contamination will get worse".  Canadian tar sands production near Fort McMurray has increased from 100, 000 barrels of oil a day in 1980 to 1.5 million barrels in 2010 and projected to be 3.7 million barrels a day by 2025.  

These health and environmental impacts to water and wildlife needed for culture and life have been called a "slow industrial genocide:"

The cultural heritage, land, ecosystems and human health of First Nation communities including the Mikisew Cree First Nation, Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, Fort McMurray First Nation, Fort McKay Cree Nation, Beaver Lake Cree First Nation Chipewyan Prairie First Nation, and the Metis, are being sacrificed for oil money in what has been termed a “slow industrial genocide”.
It was announced in February 2013 that another study will "soon be launched" on health impacts of tar sands, and will "re-examine cancer rates in Fort Chipewyan" to determine if "contaminants from industrial developments are causing illnesses" in residents of Fort Chipewyan and Fort MacKay, the native community closest to operations in the oilsands."

President Obama should not issue a decision on the XL Tar Sands Pipeline application for a Presidential Permit until after a definitive study is completed on the links between Canadian tar sands development and cancer in First Nation communities, as well as impacts on water and wildlife.

This is a reasonable request on an important issue: There is no legal, political or moral authority sanctioning the sickening and killing of people in the name of dirty energy and money.

The law favors requiring a study. The Executive Order authorizing Presidential Permits vests the Secretary of State with authority to request additional information from the applicant in order to evaluate the pipeline permit application.  It is not unusual for a federal agency to require studies be conducted. The FDA has rejected new drugs when the clinical data was insufficient on the drug's effects and thus the company was required to conduct additional studies.  

The law also provides that this permit decision is based on a "national interest determination. The State Department has "significant discretion" in the "factors it examines in making a National Interest Determination," which may vary from project to project. Key factors considered in making prior national interest determinations for oil pipeline applications include:  "Environmental impacts of the proposed projects."

The determination whether an impact significantly affects the environment includes consideration of public health and whether the potential impacts involve unknown risks.  

This proposed project is not just in the U.S. but also Canada, and thus the environmental impacts in Canada must also be considered to avoid segmentation that enables agencies to avoid fully disclosing impacts.  Courts have applied NEPA requirements governing environmental impacts to  projects outside the U.S., including specifically U.S. projects that could have impacts in Canada:

Courts that have addressed impacts across the United States’ borders have assumed that the same rule of law applies in a transboundary context. In Swinomish Tribal Community v. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Canadian intervenors were allowed to challenge the adequacy of an environmental impact statement (EIS) prepared by FERC in connection with its approval of an amendment to the City of Seattle’s license that permitted raising the height of the Ross Dam on the Skagit River in Washington State. Assuming that NEPA required consideration of Canadian impacts, the court concluded that the report had taken the requisite “hard look” at Canadian impacts. Similarly, in Wilderness Society v. Morton, the court granted intervenor status to Canadian environmental organizations that were challenging the adequacy of the trans-Alaska pipeline EIS. The court granted intervenor status because it found that there was a reasonable possibility that oil spill damage could significantly affect Canadian resources, and that Canadian interests were not adequately represented by other parties in the case.

In sum, based on legal and policy considerations, CEQ has determined that agencies must include analysis of reasonably foreseeable transboundary effects of proposed actions in their analysis of proposed actions in the United States.

The need for these studies on the links between tar sands development and cancer is buttressed by the fact that Presidential Permits must comply with an Executive Order on Environmental Justice.  An Environmental Justice EO 12898 mandates federal agencies to identify and address disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects of its programs, policies and activities on minority populations and low-income populations in the U.S. and its territories.

The EO on its face limits the environmental justice analysis to the U.S. and specific other territories that don't include Canada.

However, Presidential Permits are required for pipeline facilities that connect the U.S. with a foreign country, such as the XL pipeline. Presidential Permits must comply with this environmental justice EO.

The Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) issued guidance for environmental justice under NEPA.  This Guidance states the importance of research and data collection on exposing Indian tribes to environmental hazards:

The Executive Order recognizes the importance of research, data collection, and analysis, particularly with respect to multiple and cumulative exposures to environmental hazards for low-income populations, minority populations, and Indian tribes.   Thus, data on these exposure issues should be incorporated into NEPA analyses as appropriate.
In fact, agencies should consider adverse human health impacts on Indian tribes even if the effects are not within the control or discretion of the agency proposing the action:
Agencies should consider relevant public health data and industry data concerning the potential for multiple or cumulative exposure to human health or environmental hazards in the affected population and historical patterns of exposure to environmental hazards, to the extent such information is reasonably available. For example, data may suggest there are disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects on a minority population, low-income population, or Indian tribe from the agency action. Agencies should consider these multiple, or cumulative effects, even if certain effects are not within the control or subject to the discretion of the agency proposing the action.
Even if the law did not require that a decision on this Presidential permit be deferred until a definitive study is completed on the links between tar sands development and cancer, this Presidential permit is a political decision on domestic and foreign policy that vests discretion in Secretary Kerry.  President Obama needs to consider whether it is politically or morally defensible to approve a pipeline that will travel through America when there is data indicating tar sands development is linked to cancer and will only worsen as Canada increases its production.

Given that it took decades before government acted on leaded gasoline that harmed the health of the general public and particularly pregnant women and children, how long will it take for government to recognize the harms to First Nations, the most invisible of people. You can help by raising your voices now by submitting public comments opposing the XL Tar Sands Pipeline. Tell Washington that definitive studies must be done on tar sands development in Canada and the links to rising cancer rates with First Nations.

#NOKXL Blogathon: April 12 - April 22, 2013

You Can Make a Difference

Please submit your comments at one of these 3 sites rather than the State Department, which is not providing transparency in this public comment process:

  • "A Million Comments Against Keystone XL" - 350.org will deliver your comments directly to the State Department and has a system set up so that you can customize your comment.
  • "Tell President Obama: Reject Keystone XL!" - Sierra Club has a sample public comment that allows you to personalize your message.
  • "Tell the State Department: #NoKXL" - Oil Change International has a very helpful template to formulate your comments.

The deadline for submission of public comments is April 22, 2013.

Let your voice be heard.  Our Daily Kos community organizers are Patriot Daily News Clearinghouse, boatsie, rb137, JekyllnHyde, Onomastic, citisven, peregrine kate, DWG, and John Crapper, with Meteor Blades as the group's adviser.

Originally posted to Climate Change SOS on Sun Apr 21, 2013 at 01:01 PM PDT.

Also republished by Holy $h*tters, Meatless Advocates Meetup, Climate Hawks, DK GreenRoots, Dream Menders, J Town, and Native American Netroots.

Your Email has been sent.