Meet the People Who Will Bear Some of the Worst Effects of the Keystone XL Pipeline
Valero refinery in the Manchester community on Houston’s East End.
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“My son died from cancer. He was only 26,” he said as his eyes filled with tears.
I struggled to complete the community health survey that brought me to this man’s humble front porch, which was next door to a menacing, industrial car-crushing facility. This summer, as I knocked on dozens of his neighbor’s doors I heard similar heart-breaking stories of illness, asthma, and poverty.
One long-time resident I spoke with summed up the popular sentiment for relocation: “I’m just trying to save up enough money to move my family the hell out of here.”
These are just a few of the voices from the “End of the Line” – those living in the community of Manchester, on Houston’s toxic East End – one of the communities at the terminus of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.
Last week thousands gathered in over 200 actions across the country for a national day of action to “Draw the Line” on Keystone XL and tar sands. It seems like an appropriate moment to reflect on these stories and ask: Can our climate justice and other movements better support these communities already bearing the disproportionate burden of tar sands refining and environmental injustice?
The People at Both Ends of the Pipeline
The story of tar sands resistance goes far back beyond Obama, long before 1,253 folks like myself were arrested at the White House for protesting the pipeline, or really even before Keystone XL was anything but an industry pipe dream. Decades ago the struggle began by First Nations leaders in modern-day Canada and their commitment to maintain their ancestral homelands from what they term the “slow industrial genocide” of tar sands extraction that is poisoning their loved ones and turning their boreal paradise into a tortured wasteland.
What do the communities living with the worst impacts at both ends of this pipeline have in common? They are both communities of color.
In the spring of 2012 when President Obama fast-tracked the southern segment of Keystone XL from Cushing, Oklahoma to the Gulf Coast he sent a clear message that these communities are industrial sacrifice zones. After an epic year of direct action resistance from Tar Sands Blockade in Texas and Great Plains Tar Sands Resistance in Oklahoma, the construction of KXL South is nearing completion and would pump up to 590,000 additional barrels of toxic tar sands to be refined in fence-line communities in Houston and Port Arthur, Texas.
Life at the “End of the Line”
This part of the Gulf Coast has more refineries and petrochemical complexes than anywhere on the planet. The communities along the fence-lines of these facilities – many of which grossly violate air quality regulations on a daily basis without ever facing meaningful repercussions – breathe some of the deadliest air in North America.
It comes as no surprise that these are mostly low-income, communities of color: majority Latina/o on the East End of Houston and majority African-American in Port Arthur. “The neighborhood of Manchester and other neighborhoods within the East End of Houston are living examples of environmental racism,” says life-long East End resident and community activist, María Jiménez.
What would 500,000 additional barrels a day of tar sands from KXL South mean for the health of these communities? The best way to visualize how such an increase in toxins might impact community health is to examine the current reality. Children living within two miles of the Houston Ship Channel are 56 percent more likely to get leukemia than those living ten or more miles away. “Asthma attacks, constant headaches, nosebleeds, rashes, and eczema,” are daily realities for residents, as described by Bryan Parras, an East End activist with Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (TEJAS). “When you live near these facilities you’re being exposed to dozens of chemicals daily.” Eight of these chemicals are known carcinogens.