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Texans Say No to the Keystone XL Tar Sands Pipeline

Rocky Kistner

Posted March 21, 2012

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With news that President Obama will fast track the building of the southern leg of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, Texans in its path say their health and property rights are endangered by a torrent of corrosive tar sands oil that will flow from Canada. From landowners in the northern parts of the state to residents in the polluted refinery towns along the Gulf, the message is clear: the TransCanada pipeline will bring widespread risk of potential economic and environmental disaster to a state that already is burdened by toxic assaults from the massive petrochemical industry.  

“All my life we’ve lived in the shadows of refineries and chemical plants”, says community activist Hilton Kelley, a Port Arthur native son who received the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize and met with President Obama last year. “We grew up with the smell of sulfur and various other chemicals that’s being dumped into our environment. A large number of people are suffering from bronchitis, acute asthma, and there’s a lot of folks in this community with liver disease and cancer due to the emissions I believe that are being dumped into our air and the types of chemicals that we’re breathing….we say no to the Keystone XL pipeline because we don’t need any additional pollution being dumped into our air, and that’s what it’s going to bring.”

Check out this video of Port Arthur residents talking about refinery pollution and concerns about the Keystone XL pipeline.

Erma Lee Smith is a Port Arthur resident who says she’s been sickened by living near some of the largest refineries in the world, refineries that will be on the receiving end of  800,000 barrels of tar sands crude oil to be pushed daily through the Keystone XL pipeline.

Smith lives in a two-story housing project just a few hundred yards from chemical plants that dominate the landscape in this once prosperous oil port town, located near the birthplace of Texas' booming oil patch. In recent decades Port Arthur has fallen on hard times, although its refineries are expanding and concerns about pollution are still very much alive. 

Smith describes occasional explosions and gas eruptions from the mammoth chemical complexes that have her reaching for her “breathing machine” that helps medicate her severe bronchitis, a disease she says is common in her family and community.

"Sometimes there will be a lot of noise when they’re letting it out,” Smith says “Be shakin your windows, and I say old Lord, it’s thunder and lightning and I go to door and that’s the refinery….whatever they letting out it makes me short winded.”

Hilton Kelley says about one in five residents of this predominantly African American community close to the refineries has serious respiratory problems. “Port Arthur West side community is being disproportionally bombarded as it is with toxic waste. We do not need this tar sands coming to our area and increasing the heavy toxins in our environment.”

Tar sands oil is particularly nasty stuff in its natural state, but it will also be injected with chemicals so it can be liquefied and pushed through the proposed 1,700 mile Keystone XL pipeline to the Gulf.  In addition to health and environmental threats, the tar sands pipeline will increase oil prices in the Midwest and undermine our national security by creating an easy way to export tar sands oil overseas through tax-free Foreign Trade Zones like Port Arthur. Here’s how NRDC’s Susan Casey-Lefkowitz describes it in her recent blog:

Splitting the proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline doesn’t make it any better – not for our energy independence, not for oil prices and certainly not for our health and our environment. Keystone XL in any form would actually undermine national security and increase oil prices by reducing the amount of oil in the Midwest and sending tar sands oil overseas, as this NRDC report shows.  Similarly, a report just out from Cornell University shows that the potential environmental and economic risks from a tar sands pipeline spill – regardless of whether it happens in the Ogallala Aquifer in Nebraska, the Carrizo-Wilcox aquifer in Texas or in the Red River and its tributaries along the Texas-Oklahoma border.

Erma Lee Smith, Port Arthur TX                           Photo: Rocky Kistner/NRDC

Residents across the Lone Star state are up in arms over the $7 billion Keystone XL project, including landowners who say they are being railroaded by Big Oil interests to sell their land to a foreign company that will reap big profits, while putting their homes at risk. Wood County resident Eleanor Fairchild, whose husband had been a senior executive with Hunt Oil, says many residents are fed up with the way they've been treated by TransCanada and by their politicians. 

“It’s not regular crude, it’s the dirtiest crude in the world...I decided this thing was much bigger than by property and I did not think we should have this tar sands coming into the United States. Our lawmakers have made laws that have allowed them to push people around…I do not think it’s just for us, I think they’re looking for a port. I think tar sands should be left in the ground.”


Texas landowners talk about their opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline.


Susan Scott owns 60 acres of land in Woods County TX that she says is being threatened by the Keystone XL pipeline. Scott says she signed an eminent domain agreement with TransCanada to build the pipeline through her land after the Canadian oil firm threatened to take her to court. Scott says the stress has caused her heart problems and forced her to pay expensive medical bills, although she vows to fight on. “We’re just simple country people, we don’t have the money they have to fight this pipeline…I will fight it til the day I fall over I guess.”

From the green hill country of East Texas to the flat Gulf shores of Port Arthur, people like Susan Scott, Eleanor Fairchild, Erma Lee Smith and Hilton Kelley all share concerns about a dangerous pipeline plan that will benefit Big Oil and put their lives at greater risk. The bottom line is a tar sands oil pipeline should not be fast-tracked for political expediency, certainly not a pipeline that is directing dirty Canadian oil toward the export market. 

President Obama needs to hear these voices, Americans on the frontlines fighting for a healthy economy, a sustainable environment and a clean energy future.These are Americans who need to be a bigger part of this political debate, voices we can all be proud of.

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karenMar 21 2012 08:28 PM

How many times are we going to shut this thing down just to have it rise again? It is a very bad idea from so many angles and not a good idea at all. Is money really all that matters in this world? We could create so many jobs in renewable energy but this project would not put nearly enough people to work to even make much of a difference while damaging our sick planet even worse. I am so scared for our countries and our planets future. Looking at the candidates runnig for president.I am frightened to no end. Obama you are our only hope. I voted for you and will again because you are the lesser of the evils but please do something to help us.

Mike H.Mar 21 2012 10:44 PM

There was a big Tar sands "crude" spill in 2010 of 860,000+ gallons, and they are still cleaning it up today. The stuff is more like sludge than crude oil.

robMar 22 2012 10:13 AM

Be afraid but not from the oil. Be afraid of articles like this that mislead you and try to scare you.

If you look into who pays for organizations that pay for articles like this and you will find that they are the same fat cat Wall Street types that you are afraid of.

Maynard G.Mar 22 2012 06:27 PM

It's almost got me in tears every day at how badly our country is heading in the wrong direction. I am trying to do my part in helping to provide a sustainable and independant future for our country and hopefully the world but I am just one person, and am only a drop in the bucket when it comes to having my voice heard. Clean energy independance is a must for the future. The oil will only last for so long before we're left up shit creek without a paddle. I understand that we all need oil now to sustain ourselves and I understand the governments position in fighting for that cause but the government, and us Americans, need to be more proactive in creating the sustainability and independance when the oil DOES run out.

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