Toxins from refineries processing tar sands bitumen are dangerously polluting the air of local communities in the United States, according to a recent report by ForestEthics. Areas surrounding tar sands refineries – where a higher proportion of society’s vulnerable minority, aging and poor communities live – exhibit intense levels of sulfur dioxide (SO2) as a result of the high sulfur content of bitumen feed stocks used in the process. Sulfur dioxide pollution is associated with asthma and heart disease.
“The growing use of Canada’s tar sands by U.S. refineries adds another health risk to those already being faced by some of the most disadvantaged communities in the United States,” said Aaron Sanger, U.S. Campaigns Director at ForestEthics and author of the report, in a press release.
At current rates, the U.S. imports 99 percent of Canadian bitumen exports. That oil is refined near low-income areas, meaning the health effects fall disproportionately on communities with disadvantaged groups. African American and Latino populations suffer higher cancer risks from refinery pollutants than the general population, according to the EPA.
The top five SO2 emitters in the lower 48 account for 31 percent of the bitumen used to make transportation fuel in refineries as well as 39 percent of the sulfur dioxide emissions reported by all transportation fuel processing refineries in those states.
The emphasis in the report is clear: “The greater the quantity of tar sands these refineries used, the more sulfur dioxide pollution they produced.”
In addition, those communities living in close proximity to refineries handling tar sands bitumen are put at an elevated risk: “short term-exposure to elevated sulfur dioxide levels is associated with reduced lung function, chest tightness, wheezing, shortness of breath, respiratory illness, deterioration of the lung’s defense systems, and the aggravation of cardiovascular systems.”
Here is a map of the refineries ForestEthics reports on:
“Dumping more tar sands pollution on communities already suffering unfairly from our fossil fueled transportation is monstrous,” Sanger said in the press release. “U.S. companies have used their buying power against refinery use of tar sands; the EPA should also use its legal power against this growing human health problem.”
ForestEthics is the lead environmental organization in a campaign to encourage companies to support socially equitable and environmentally sustainable products. Along with the city of Bellingham, Washington, 16 companies have publicly announced their plans to limit support of refineries processing tar sands oil.
Be sure to take a look at the full report for more detailed information about Alberta’s tar sands, the health impacts of SO2 and tar sands oil on communities, and refineries processing tar sands oil in the U.S.