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Tarnation: Environmentalists, landowners and Valero await decision on the Keystone XL pipeline

Photo: Photos by Tar Sands Blockade / LauraBorealis, License: N/A

Photos by Tar Sands Blockade / LauraBorealis

A protester is arrested outside Wells, Texas.

Photo: , License: N/A

Protester sits in the trees above the Keystone XL pipeline construction outside Wells, Texas.


One 2010 Sierra Club report links emissions from tar sands refineries to prenatal brain damage, asthma, and emphysema. And yet EPA has conducted no evaluation of its own.

Where it goes

One place where Valero is sure to refine the tar sands oil from Keystone XL is Port Arthur, where a quarter of the population live below the poverty line and the per-capita income is two-thirds the Texas average.

Hilton Kelley grew up on the front lines of toxic exposure in Port Arthur's predominantly black west side, situated literally across the tracks.

"We get our daily dose of toxins for sure," Kelley says, either from Valero or the litany of other petrochemical facilities nearby. Kelley grew up within eyesight of the giant Motiva refinery, breathing air laced with elevated levels of potent toxins like benzene, sulfur dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, and 1,3-butadiene.

A decade ago, University of Texas Medical Branch epidemiologist Marvin Legator, who has since died, began studying Port Arthur's west side, comparing residents there to a control group in Galveston with similar racial and economic makeup. Legator found approximately 80 percent of residents in Port Arthur reported cardiovascular and respiratory problems. Meanwhile, in Galveston only 30 percent reported cardiovascular problems, and only 10 percent reported respiratory issues.

For more than a decade, Kelley has relentlessly fought to improve air quality and reduce toxic emissions impacting Port Arthur's fenceline communities.

"We do not want the Keystone XL pipeline coming to this area," he said "We've made that known to the State Department, the EPA, Valero, everybody."

Valero spokesman Day says its Port Arthur expansion consists of upgrades to adequately control for air pollution, and that the company has secured all the necessary permits from regulators. Besides, Valero will continue to refine heavy crude whether or not Keystone XL is approved, he says.

"We believe this pipeline would bring a heavier crude than we've ever dealt with before," Kelley insists. "Sulfur emissions increase, and then we see more asthmatic patients going to the hospital."

Kelley speaks with a cautious realism brought on by years of activism. "We've made our position known, that we don't want that pipeline coming into this area, but that's about all we can do right now," he says.

"We're not chaining ourselves to fences, locking ourselves up to anything or getting arrested. We're staying within the law."

Others aren't so committed to lawfulness. Following their arrests outside Valero's Houston refinery, the hunger strikers and tar sands blockaders drafted a long letter they delivered to Valero just after Christmas. It was filled with demands the company is unlikely to take seriously. Earlier this month protesters stormed TransCanada offices across the country as part of a concerted mass action. In Westborough, Massachusetts, students superglued themselves together in an office lobby. Activists occupied Houston's TransCanada headquarters with a homemade "KXL pipe monster" crafted out of bed sheets.

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