Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Keystone XL pipeline and Houston's air-quality future

Earlier today I accompanied a handful of activists and media on a "Toxic Tour" led by Juan Parras of tejas (Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services) and sponsored by the Sierra Club. The East End tour focuses on the health threats that low-income Houstonians already face from refining pollution, and the dire consequences of worsening that pollution from the proposed Keystone XL pipeline (more here and also here), which would result from a significant increase in the refining of Canada’s tar sands in the Houston Ship Channel's refineries.

Some background: Tar sands oil contains -- among other heavy metals, neurotoxins, and carcinogens -- an average of 11 times more sulfur and nickel, six times more nitrogen, and five times more lead than conventional crude oil (.pdf source here). Refining it emits three times as much global warming pollution as conventional oil (here), and the massive network of refineries along the Ship Channel is one of the only places in North America with the industrial capacity to create fuel from the tarry sludge of bitumen flowing from Alberta, Canada. Consequently, it is already one of the worst public health zones in the nation.

The proposed Keystone XL pipeline would bring upwards of 700,000 barrels of oil per day, and potentially 900,000 once the pipeline is completed, to be refined in Houston and Port Arthur. That represents about 35% of the capacity of the targeted refineries. Given that this oil is a lower quality crude with higher levels of toxic contaminants than usual, the risk of extremely grave consequences is unacceptably high -- for Houston's air quality, the health of its citizens and the repercussions from the federal government for continually failing to meet clean air standards

There is also the danger of the pipeline traveling 2000 miles across six states from Montana to Texas, passing over and through sixty rivers and lakes as well as the Ogallala Aquifer, which by itself puts 30% of the nation's agricultural water at risk of contamination from leak or rupture. We could also talk about the toothless, ineffective, toady-infested Texas Commission on Environmental Quality -- under sunset review in the next legislative session -- and the incompetence and corruption of the Texas Railroad Commission in this regard. Even the long-term Democratic Congressman for the area, Gene Green, is in the pocket of industry for that matter. Overarching all of that, a discussion about the Obama administration's half-assed success in encouraging and executing an alternative fuels policy, along with the failure (and capitulation to greed) of private entrepreneurs like Boone Pickens might be useful. But I'm going to save all of that for another day and another post. This one will just focus on the threats to Houstonians that are both ongoing and increasing.

Parras editorialized in the newspaper about this last month, so you can read his account of living in the East End and watching the children there contract leukemia at rates about 56 percent higher than normal, and of having Cesar Chavez High School and Deer Park Elementary scoring in the top 1% of the most polluted schools in the country, due to the fact that all twelve of the most hazardous pollutants associated with petrochemical refining are found right in his neighborhood.

Our tour took us first around the 'hood next to Hartmann Park, which abuts the Valero facility. The small cinder-block houses are aged but dignified. Most represent the same pride of ownership as any subdivision in the city, with meticulous landscaping and Christmas decorations. The area is mostly industrial and commercial, criss-crossed by railroad tracks and frequently interrupted by train traffic. Much of it contains the historical remains of Harrisburg, the forerunner of modern Houston and one of the state's first capital cities. (Nearby is Glendale Cemetery, where the John Harris family and a handful of Texas Revolutionary War heroes lie buried alongside one of the state's first attorneys general, John Birdsall. The cemetery also contains a monument to the homestead of Gen. Sidney Sherman, who commanded a regiment at San Jacinto and is credited with the battle cry 'Remember the Alamo!'.)

Our first stop was Brady's Landing, also a historic site but today mostly known for its fine dining and unparalleled view of the Ship Channel's turning basin. During the evening the restaurant is like many others in the city: bustling with patrons and staff, the parking lot busy with diner traffic. During the day, however, the region's oppressive noise is invasive and obnoxious; right next door a facility is dry-docking barges and a team of several men operating industrial-grade pressure washers removes barnacles from their hulls. Cranes swing containers to and from foreign freighters, crashing and booming. The warehouses directly across the channel are beehives of activity, with stevedores operating forklifts, shifting and stacking and slamming pallets of material. It was amazing how loud it was, a phenomenon I never noticed in my visits at night to dine. On the other side of the restaurant a steamshovel was loading and unloading a smoking, 200-hundred-foot high brown pile of ... something, fertilizer-like in appearance. No accompanying aroma, fortunately. Maybe we were upwind.

We moved on to Cesar Chavez High School, where a group of us trudged a hundred yards or so beside another set of railroad tracks and stood across the street from the school, directly on top of one of the pipelines which runs right next to the fieldhouse, football field, and track. The faint, sickly sweet smell of natural gas -- or more accurately the added odorant mercaptan -- was apparent.

After returning to Hartmann Park's community center, Parras and state representative Jessica Farrar, along with the Sierra Club's Kate Colarulli and Pastor Dr. Morris Jenkins, held a press conference highlighting the data about the neighborhood and the proposed pipeline. That was followed by a seminar on the tar sands dilemma which also included the Sierra Club's Neil Carman, who previously worked for the TCEQ before he blew the whistle on the agency's malfeasance.

The action item to prevent Keystone XL from becoming reality is to petition Secretary of State Hillary Clinton -- it is the Department of State's jurisdiction to review permitting for international pipelines -- to order a review of the environmental and health impacts of the proposed pipeline. Sign that petition here.

Peoples' lives literally ride on it. The most brutal elements of raw, unbridled capitalism inherent in the nation's friendliest, "good-fer-bidness" state will show no mercy if this deal goes through. As usual.

Houston Press' Hair Balls has more from June of this year.

Update: FOX 26 was with us on the "Toxic Tour" and had this report...

Story link:

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