When ozone pollution skyrocketed in the tiny town of Boulder, Wyo., in 2008, it was relatively easy to identify the culprit as oil and gas drilling, the only major industry in the rural area.
Today, a similar situation in San Antonio, Texas, will be more difficult to resolve. The city has violated federal ozone standards dozens of times since 2008, but with so much industrial activity in and around the city—including the Eagle Ford shale drilling boom south of San Antonio—local officials are waiting for the results of a state-funded study to pinpoint the source of the pollution.
San Antonio's ozone problem is so serious that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency could designate the city a nonattainment area for ozone, a hazardous air pollutant that can cause serious respiratory problems. If that happens, the growing city would likely be saddled with additional air quality regulations, including stricter pollution controls on vehicles and industrial plants.
A little-known pipeline could win the race to ship heavy Canadian crude oil from the Midwest to the U.S. Gulf Coast if it comes online as planned in 2015.
Called the Eastern Gulf Crude Access Pipeline Project, the 774-mile line would be capable of carrying almost as much oil as the Keystone XL, the controversial pipeline mired in its fifth year of federal review.
The Eastern Gulf would run from Patoka, Ill. to St. James, La., carrying oil from North Dakota's Bakken formation as well as Canadian oil sands crude. Both types of oil are creating a bottleneck in the Midwest, which doesn't have the refining or pipeline capacity to handle the large amounts of oil now being produced.
When Diane Wilson complained of headaches and coughs after an oil pipeline ruptured in Mayflower, Ark., her doctor treated her for allergies.
When Genieve Long came down with nausea, rashes and a fever, her doctor couldn't provide a diagnosis.
When Ann Jarrell's 6-month-old grandson began wheezing, a doctor sent him home with asthma medication.
All three families live within a few hundred yards of the March 29 oil spill that sent more than 200,000 gallons of heavy Canadian crude oil through Mayflower. Their experiences offer a snapshot of the confusion surrounding the health impacts of the spill, an uncertainty created by limitations in the science, physicians' lack of training in environmental health and a communication gap between local health officials and the people they are meant to serve. Like families who lived near two other large oil spills—the June 2010 spill in Salt Lake City, Utah and the July 2010 spill in Michigan's Kalamazoo River—they are still searching for answers.
Diluted bitumen, a controversial form of heavy Canadian oil, poses no more risks to pipelines than conventional oil, according to a long-awaited report released Tuesday by the National Academy of Sciences.
But environmentalists and pipeline watchdogs said the study's scope was so narrow and its methodology so flawed that it does little to settle the controversy over whether diluted bitumen, or dilbit, is more dangerous to humans and the environment than the light, conventional crude oil that most U.S. pipelines were built to handle.
Since 2010, at least three ruptured pipelines have spilled oil into U.S. neighborhoods, forcing officials to decide quickly whether local residents would be harmed if they breathed the foul air. But because there are no clear federal guidelines saying if or when the public should be evacuated during an oil spill, health officials had to use a patchwork of scientific and regulatory data designed for other situations.
As a result, residents of the three communities received different levels of protection.
No houses were evacuated in Salt Lake City, Utah, where a ruptured pipeline leaked 33,000 gallons of medium grade crude oil before it was discovered on the morning of June 12, 2010. The oil ran down Red Butte Creek, past neighborhoods where windows were left open in the summer heat. The fumes, which are known to cause drowsiness, left some people so lethargic that they didn't wake up until after noon.
In Marshall, Mich. officials called for a voluntary evacuation after more than a million gallons of heavy Canadian crude spilled into the Kalamazoo River on July 25, 2010. But they agonized over the decision for four days before making that recommendation.
In Mayflower, Ark. authorities quickly evacuated 22 families after a broken pipeline leaked about 200,000 gallons of heavy crude on March 29, 2013. But people living in the same subdivision, just a few blocks away, were not asked to leave. Neither were the residents of the lakeside community where the oil eventually pooled and where the cleanup continues today.
A Canadian company is repairing dozens of defects along the newly laid southern leg of the Keystone XL—the section of the oil pipeline that does not need approval from the U.S. State Department and is already under construction.
The Oklahoma-to-Texas pipeline is not yet operational, but landowners worry that the repairs hint at more serious problems that could someday lead to oil spills. The project will carry primarily Canadian oil—including diluted bitumen from Alberta's oil sands—from Cushing, Okla. to the Texas Gulf Coast.
David Whitley, who owns a small cattle ranch in Wood County, Texas, said he first heard about the repairs six weeks ago, when TransCanada—the company behind the project—asked to dig up a small section of the pipeline on his land for a visual inspection. Whitley said the work was described as part of a "random inspection."
Construction workers showed up with heavy equipment and dug a trench at least 30 feet long, he told InsideClimate News. They removed an eight-foot section of pipe and painted it with the words "DENT" and "CUT OUT." Later, Whitley said he found a construction checklist near the trench that labeled his property as work site 31 or 34. (He said the last digit was difficult to read.)
In a video produced by Public Citizen Texas, a nonprofit that opposes the pipeline, landowners say pipeline workers have told them there are at least 40 "anomalies" along a 60 or 70-mile stretch of the line in east Texas.
While all eyes are on TransCanada's Keystone XL pipeline, another Canadian company is quietly building a 5,000-mile network of new and expanded pipelines that would achieve the same goal as the Keystone. In fact, the project by Enbridge, Inc., Canada's largest transporter of crude oil, would bring even more Canadian oil into the U.S. than the much-debated Keystone project.
Enbridge has already begun growing its existing pipeline infrastructure to increase the flow of Canadian and U.S.-produced oil into refineries and ports in the Midwest, Gulf Coast and Northeastern Canada. The company's plans have largely escaped public scrutiny, in part because its expansion has proceeded in many segments and phases.
Environmentalists suffered a setback on Tuesday when British Columbia re-elected a premier who left the door open for approval of two oil pipelines that would carry tar sands oil across B.C. to the Pacific Coast, where it could be exported to the world market.
Despite trailing in the polls, incumbent Christy Clark, the leader of B.C.'s Liberal Party, defeated Adrian Dix and his New Democratic Party. Dix had opposed both pipelines, and environmental groups had hoped his win would signal the end of the projects.
The two Canadian pipelines—along with the proposed Keystone XL pipeline across the United States—are crucial to the expansion of Canada's oil sands industry, which is based in the province of Alberta. The industry hopes to double in size over the next decade, but because Alberta is landlocked, more pipelines are needed to get the oil to the coast.
Like the Keystone project, the Canadian pipelines face grassroots opposition from local landowners and environmental groups.
Rep. Tim Griffin, a staunch supporter of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, recently asked ExxonMobil to move another, smaller oil pipeline away from a major water source in his home state of Arkansas.
It's a contradiction that grates on opponents of the Keystone, which would run through a critically important aquifer that supplies irrigation and drinking water to Nebraska and seven other states.
"What's good for Arkansas is good for Nebraska," anti-Keystone activist Jane Kleeb said in an email. "Rep. Griffin showed courage and common sense asking Exxon to move the tar sands pipeline away from the water. The same request should apply to all pipelines, especially Keystone XL that lies [in] the Ogallala aquifer and crosses over 200 bodies of water and family wells."
For more than a month, residents of Mayflower, Ark. have been told not to worry about lingering fumes from a March 29 oil spill that shut down a neighborhood and forced the evacuation of 22 homes.
"Overall, air emissions in the community continue to be below levels likely to cause health effects for the general population," Arkansas regulators wrote on a state-operated website that tracks Mayflower's air monitoring data.
Despite these reassurances, residents have suffered headaches, nausea and vomiting—classic symptoms of short-term exposure to the chemicals found in crude oil.
"Figuring out how to protect people after a disaster like this is very hard," said Aaron Bernstein, a public health expert and associate director of Harvard's Center for Health and the Global Environment. "People living near the spill early on could definitely have gotten sick" from the concentrations present in the air.