Tar sands creating a new “Cancer Alley” in Canada

I probably don’t need to tell you what concentrating a band of oil refineries, chemical plants, and environmentally challenging industrial facilities can do to a community. Here in Louisiana, we’ve been living with such a place, lining the Mississippi River and the surrounding countryside between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. It used to be called the “petrochemical corridor” but nowadays most Louisianans just call it “Cancer Alley.”

The region — mostly working-class or plagued by poverty — has been the site of both catastrophic events like the sinkhole collapse in Bayou Corne and several lethal chemical plant explosions, but also more frequent airborne releases of toxic chemicals and carcinogens such as benzene. It’s almost certainly not a coincidence that the state of Louisiana has the second highest rate of cancer in the nation; some of that may be due to unhealthy lifestyles but most experts believe environmental factors strongly contribute.

I was thinking about “Cancer Alley” as I was reading the latest news out of the tar sands in western Canada, the site of North America’s newest “black gold” rush. If you’re an American citizen, you may be concerned about the Keystone XL project that will carry this heavy, dirty fuel across the U.S. Heartland. But the current exploitation of the tar sands is already causing huge environmental headaches in Canada. The latest news out of the region is simply stunning:

A new study has found that levels of air pollution downwind of the largest tar sands, oil and gas producing region in Canada rival levels found in the world’s most polluted cities. And that pollution isn’t just dirtying the air — it also could be tied increased incidence of blood cancers in men that live in the area.

The study, published last week by researchers from University of California Irvine and the University of Michigan, found levels of carcinogenic air pollutants 1,3-butadiene and benzene spiked in the Fort Saskatchewan area, which is downwind of the oil and tar sands-rich “Industrial Heartland” of Alberta. Airborne levels of 1,3-butadiene were 322 times greater downwind of the Industrial Heartland — which houses more than 40 major chemical, petrochemical and oil and gas facilities — than upwind, while downwind levels of benzene were 51 times greater. Levels of some volatile organic compounds — which, depending on the compound, have been linked to liver, kidney and central nervous system damage as well as cancer — were 6,000 times higher than normal. The area saw concentrations of some chemicals that were higher than levels in Mexico City during the 1990s, when it was the most polluted city on the planet.

“These levels, found over a broad area, are clearly associated with industrial emissions,” said Stuart Batterman,” one of the study’s co-authors. “They also are evidence of major regulatory gaps in monitoring and controlling such emissions and in public health surveillance.”

The researchers also said that they discovered over the last 10 years elevated rates of  leukemia and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in men; a direct connection is difficult to prove but the authors call for a proactive drop in emissions as a precaution. Coincidentally, the World Health Organization also this week moved to list “air pollution” as a known carcinogen.

This is tragic news — and arguably not just for Alberta. Because of the surge in tar sands oil production, there are increasing moves to ship this heavy fuel to Louisiana and its once-again growing roster of tank farms and refineries, for end production or for shipment to emerging markets such as China and India. The end result of this fossil fuel binge may be not one “Cancer Alley,” but two.

Read Think Progress on the new Canadian tar sands cancer study at: http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2013/10/28/2845411/alberta-tar-sands-pollution-cancer/

Check out some of my previous posts about “Cancer Alley”: http://www.stuarthsmith.com/?s=%22cancer+alley%22

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