Oil spills have been a hot-button topic ever since the Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. Beaches were closed, and people were warned not to consume seafood that was caught in the Gulf. More recently, attention has turned to onshore oil pipelines, specifically TransCanada’s proposed Keystone XL Pipeline, which would run through the center of the United States, including Montana, South Dakota, and Nebraska. What makes this pipeline different, and arguably more dangerous, is that it would carry oil derived from Alberta, Canada’s tar sands as opposed to lighter, more conventional crude oil.
Tar sands, as they’re called, are derived from a substance called bitumen, a mixture ofheavy oil, sand, clay, and water. Bitumen is too thick to flow through a pipeline, so the substance must first be diluted with other substances. These diluents can be natural gas condensate, naphtha, or a mix of other light hydrocarbons.
Ten days after the Deepwater Horizon well was capped, a much less publicized disaster occurred in Michigan. On July 25, 2010, a pipeline owned by Canadian company Enbridge burst and released over 800,000 gallons of tar sands into the Kalamazoo River. What makes this type of oil potentially more worrisome than lighter, conventional crude is that tar sands sink, as opposed to conventional crude, which floats on water. Once the oil sinks, it coats the subsurface of rivers and streams, making it near impossible to remove. More than two years later, the spill is still not cleaned up due to the unique attributes of tar sands oil, and the Kalamazoo River remains contaminated. To date, this is the most expensive onshore oil spill in United States history, costing almost one billion dollars.
After the Kalamazoo spill, the Michigan Department of Community Health (MDCH) released a report on the risks of contact with the oil. The MDCH concluded that the substance could cause skin irritation, but not many long-term health issues. The report did not analyze health effects from inhalation of chemicals contained in the remaining oil.
Furthermore, Riki Ott disagrees with the conclusion of the MDCH. Ott is a marine toxicologist from Alaska who has spent the last two decades studying health problems of people who live near the Exxon Valdez and Gulf of Mexico spill sites. She then traveled to Michigan after the Kalamazoo spill, and found a similar scene where people experienced dizziness, nausea, rashes, and headaches. “If the state is acknowledging there could be short term health effects, then that means there could also be long term health effects.” Unfortunately, this would not be the first example in the United States of later discovering unknown impacts from a widely-used chemical. Banned substances such as DDT and PCBs are still found in the environment today, and scientists predict that molecules of these substances are carried by wind.
Unfortunately for the oil sands industry, yet another spill occurred a few days ago, on March 29, in Mayflower, Arkansas. Over 10,000 gallons of tar sands oil spilled over roads and through the yards of many people in the area, and at least 22 homes have been evacuated due to air quality risks. Accordingly, professional hygienists are monitoring the area’s air quality.
While any spill is unfortunate press for the oil industry, this spill comes at an almost unbelievably inopportune time, considering the pending decision on the Keystone XL Pipeline. Although the Keystone would not traverse Arkansas, states in the proposed route are undoubtedly wondering if this type of disaster is in their future. The Keystone 1 pipeline, an existing portion of the Keystone line, was predicted to spill once every seven years. However, it spilled twelve times during its first year and has spilled more than 30 times over its lifetime.
While the immediate environmental impacts of a tar sands spill are becoming increasingly apparent to U.S. citizens, the less-known adverse effects on human health should not be forgotten or dismissed. This is yet another factor the U.S. government and its citizens must consider when deciding whether tar sands are worth the risk.