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Toxic Tar Sands: Texas

David Daniel
Winnsboro, East Texas

Two years ago, David Daniel was surprised to hear from his neighbor of survey crews trespassing on his property near the east Texas town of Winnsboro.

TransCanada was beginning work for the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, slated to run the length of Daniel's land, cutting it in half. Daniel wasn't told about the pipeline before the survey crews showed up, but laws in Texas do little to protect landowners from corporations like TransCanada.

"This is our home and was supposed to be a safe place to raise our daughter, and now it's at risk for an oil disaster."

Now, Daniel is worried about the pipeline destroying wetland habitat and threatening springs and creeks. He's spoken with water experts who say the construction of the pipeline could forever damage the natural water supply in the area.

Daniel bought his land specifically for its lush resources with the intention of preserving it; 20 acres of 100-year-old trees, wetlands, wildlife and spring-fed creeks were to be his family's sanctuary. "Our intention was to preserve our land as a legacy for our daughter," he says. "We never dreamed that we would live to see any part of it destroyed, especially by a foreign oil company."

Soon after the surveyors came through, Daniel received several intimidating letters from TransCanada. Then, land agents were sent to his home, pressuring him to sign contracts he was not given time to read. Fearing he would lose his land completely, Daniel eventually signed an easement agreement.

But he hasn't given up. Now, Daniel is stepping up his fight to protect property owners from being forced to endure the unacceptably high risks tar sands pipelines pose to their land.

Two thousand five hundred and fifty-four pipeline spills occurred between the years 2000-2009 alone, and Daniel knows a pipeline leak is not a question of "if," but "when."14 He is organizing with farmers and landowners from Nebraska to Texas to inform others about the risks toxic pipelines pose, and the threat his family is now forced to live with.

"My family will be forced to live in fear and physical danger of this pipeline with some of the most toxic stuff we've ever seen come through this state. This is our home and was supposed to be a safe place to raise our daughter, and now it's at risk for an oil disaster."

Juan Parras
Houston/Port Arthur

When Juan Parras moved to Eastwood, a neighborhood along the Houston Ship Channel, one of the first things he noticed was the proximity of local schools to the vast array of refineries and power plants that line the ship channel. Many of the refineries process tar sands oil from Canada. Quickly realizing the scope of this toxic threat, Parras began a personal crusade to fight for better air.

Parras's community, a primarily Latino, low-income area along the Houston Ship Channel's industrial corridor, is home to several of the nation's most polluted schools.

"Your body gets used to the smells, but not the effects."

This is the targeted destination of the Keystone XL pipeline, where more than 90 percent of the heavy, sulfurous tar sands crude will be refined. An additional 900,000 barrels of tar sands every day will further poison this community if the Keystone XL pipeline is built.

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 Canada. Consequently, it is already one of the worst public health zones in the nation.

A study done by the University of Texas and the city of Houston in cooperation with the EPA targeted twelve hazardous air pollutants generated by petrochemical refining; all twelve chemicals registered present in Parras's community. Eight are known carcinogens, and registered at elevated levels. Parras sees the tragic manifestations of these chemicals in the children of his community.

"A lot of kids are getting leukemia. You have a 56 percent greater chance within a two mile radius of the Houston Ship Channel of contracting leukemia" says Parras, referring to the EPA study. With Houston refineries planning to process an additional 900,000 barrels of the world's dirtiest oil every day from the Keystone XL pipeline, rates of pollution and disease in the area can only be expected to increase.

At public EPA hearings, Parras and citizens from the ship channel area testified that refining tar sands would unfairly burden residents who already suffer from the oil industry's pollution. Despite the toxic environment created by the oil industry, Parras's community is firmly rooted, and many feel it is a home worth fighting for. "Once you develop a sense of community its hard to leave. Even in the face of pollution it is difficult to break up culture."

Yet the massive petroleum refining corridor in their backyard takes its toll on many, and rates of diseases associated with exposure to petrochemical manufacturing are high. Tar sands are the last thing ship channel residents need.

"Your body gets used to the smells," Parras says, "but not the effects."

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