A Cautionary Tale: Tar Sands Oil And Health

Plans to build the Keystone XL pipeline are on hold,but there are very few answers about the health risks involved in moving that kind of oil, as pipeline accidents in Michigan and Arkansas are demonstrating. WhoWhatWhy takes a look.
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 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.
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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.

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.


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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.

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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.

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.

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