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Poison in the Pipeline: The Toxic Risk of Keystone XL

(202) 667-6982
For Immediate Release: 
Thursday, June 20, 2013

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Independent lab tests of a sample taken from a tar sands oil spill earlier this year in Arkansas detected several highly toxic chemicals, according to a new report by Environmental Working Group commissioned by clean energy advocate and philanthropist Tom Steyer.

“A single sample of tar sands oil included chemicals that cause cancer in humans and produce serious and permanent birth defects in children,” said EWG’s director of research, Renée Sharp. “These are the consequences the Obama administration should be weighing first and foremost before it makes its final decision on whether to subject millions of American families to the real risks that could come if the Keystone pipeline is approved.”

Among the chemicals detected in the sample of the tar sands oil from the March 29, 2013 rupture of an ExxonMobil pipeline in Mayflower, Ark., were: benzene, a known human carcinogen; xylene, which can harm the nervous system; chromium, which can cause cancer and birth defects; and lead, which can cause serious and permanent damage to the developing nervous system.

Other chemicals found by laboratory researchers were:

·      Toluene – toxic to the nervous system and kidneys and can cause birth defects if pregnant women are exposed to elevated levels.

·      Ethylbenzene – listed as a carcinogen in California’s Proposition 65 inventory of toxic chemicals; animal studies suggest that it may also be toxic to the nervous system, cause developmental harm and damage hearing and the kidneys.

·      1,2,4-Trimethylbenzene – a volatile chemical that can irritate the skin and respiratory system; exposure to high levels may cause adverse central nervous system effects such as drowsiness and headache; animal experiments show that it can have toxic effects on development.

Because of industry trade secrets, EWG was able to test for only a limited number of potential contaminants in the crude oil sample from Mayflower.

The pipeline that burst in Arkansas was carrying the same type of Canadian tar sands oil that would flow through Keystone XL, technically termed “bitumen.” Because bitumen typically occurs in solid or semi-solid form, it must be diluted with significant quantities of a chemical cocktail before it can be pumped through a pipeline. The resulting mixture is called diluted bitumen or “dilbit.” The exact composition of dilbit is anyone’s guess since the tar sands industry claims that the identity of the diluting chemicals is a trade secret and does not disclose that information.

The lack of such basic information was one reason the Environmental Protection Agency gave a rating of “inadequate” to the State Department’s first draft Environmental Impact Statement on the pipeline proposal. This rating indicates that the EPA did not think the draft document adequately assessed the potentially significant environmental risks of building and operating the pipeline (EPA 2011).

The EPA noted that “an analysis of potential diluents is important to establish the potential health and environmental impacts of any spilled oil, and responder/worker safety, and to develop response strategies.” Equally importantly, the public cannot make an informed judgment on the safety of the Keystone XL pipeline if it is in the dark about what kinds of toxic chemicals will flow through it.

“The public has a right to know what kinds of toxic chemicals may be flowing next to their homes, farms, and drinking water sources,” said EWG Executive Director Heather White. “Oil and gas companies must be required to publicly disclose the names and amounts of all chemicals used to dilute tar sands oil before a true debate over Keystone XL can take place.”

A July, 2010 pipeline spill in Marshall, Mich., provided ample evidence of how challenging it is to clean up spills of tar sands oil. In that incident, Enbridge Energy Partners reported that a rupture of a 30-inch diameter oil pipeline had released 843,000 gallons of diluted tar sands oil into a nearby creek and ultimately into the Kalamazoo River. The Keystone XL pipeline would be 36 inches in diameter, which would make a similar spill even more devastating. Heavy oil from the Enbridge spill sank to the bottom of the river and mixed with sediment and organic matter, making the recovery process extremely difficult.

After almost three years of cleanup efforts, the federal Environmental Protection Agency recently determined that it will be necessary to dredge the bottom of the Kalamazoo River to “protect public health and the welfare of the environment.” A document filed by Enbridge with the US Securities and Exchange Commission in March said that as a result of EPA’s final order, the estimated cost of cleaning up the spill had risen to a staggering $1 billion.

The Arkansas and Michigan pipeline ruptures are clear warnings of the dangers facing America’s waters, soils and homes if the Keystone XL pipeline is approved, and a reality check on the incredible difficulty and expense of cleaning up after spills of tar sands oil.

EWG researchers wrote: “These findings raise crucial questions: How many drinking water supplies or acres of farmland might be devastated by pipeline ruptures for months, years, or perhaps forever? Would people want to buy food from a farm that had been contaminated with crude oil containing benzene, lead and any number of other toxic chemicals?”

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