WASHINGTON, DC, April 11, 2014 (ENS) – Two large national public health groups today wrote to Secretary of State John Kerry, joining a request for an in-depth human health study on the Keystone XL  pipeline before the President decides whether to permit the tar sands pipeline to cross the Canada-U.S. border.

The American Public Health Association is the oldest and most diverse organization of public health professionals in the world, representing health providers, educators, environmentalists, policy makers and health officials at all levels.

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The Keystone pipeline (Photo courtesy TransCanada)

The National Association of County and City Health Officials represents 2,700 local health departments across the country.

Proposed by the Canadian corporation TransCanada, the Keystone XL Pipeline would be 1,179-mile (1,897 km), 36-inch-diameter tar sands oil pipeline beginning in Hardisty, Alberta, and extending south to Steele City, Nebraska. There it would meet an existing pipeline to carry tarry diluted bitumen to refineries on the Texas Gulf Coast.

The $5.4 billion pipeline would transport 830,000 barrels of tar sands oil daily, an increase of 45 percent over current import levels. If the pipeline is approved, Canada could produce 300 percent more tar sands oil by 2030.

Because it would cross the border, a Presidential Permit declaring the pipeline to be in the national interest is required. The U.S. State Department is tasked with evaluating the risks and benefits and making a recommendation to the President.

The health groups’ letter states, “Our organizations support the concept of “health in all policies” and the consideration of potential health impacts in all decisionmaking. There is an increasing recognition that the environments in which people live, work, learn and play have a tremendous impact on their health. The administration will certainly benefit by having a clear understanding of how the proposed Keystone XL pipeline could impact the public’s health, including the health of our most vulnerable citizens.”

“The full spectrum of health considerations are often overlooked in important decisions and their omission can lead to policies and practices that are unnecessarily harmful to public health,” the health groups wrote.

Senators Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat who chairs the Committee on Environment and Public Works, and Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat, requested the human health study in a February 26 letter to Kerry, and the National Nurses United, representing 185,000 nurses, made a similar request in a letter dated March 13.

The two senators spokes of their health concerns on a teleconference with reporters today.

Boxer said, “We know that misery follows tar sands. Significantly higher levels of dangerous air pollutants and carcinogens have been documented downwind from tar sands refineries, and in these areas people are suffering higher rates of the types of cancers linked to these toxic chemicals, including leukemia and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.”

“Tar sands oil will flow to our Gulf Coast refineries, increasing the toxic air pollution that already plagues communities like Port Arthur, Texas. In neighborhoods in Detroit and Chicago, massive open piles of tar sands waste byproduct, known as ‘pet coke,’ have resulted in billowing black clouds containing concentrated heavy metals,” she warned. “Children playing baseball have been forced off the field to seek cover from the clouds of black dust that pelted homes and cars.

On the other hand, 11 Senate Democrats Thursday urged President Barack Obama to approve the Keystone XL pipeline by the end of May.

Six of the Democrats who signed the letter face election challenges this year: Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Mark Begich of Alaska, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, John Walsh of Montana, Kay Hagan of North Carolina and Mark Warner of Virginia.

The five-year review of the pipeline has been “exhaustive in its time, breadth and scope” and has taken “longer than reasonably justified,” the senators wrote to the President. Approval is needed to ensure that TransCanada does not miss another construction season, the senators’ wrote.

TransCanada argues that the United States needs Canadian tar sands oil, saying, “Keystone XL can virtually end U.S. reliance on Venezuelan and Russian oil imports.”

Keystone XL has support from a majority of senators. The Republican-controlled House has voted to approve the pipeline.

Polls show most Americans support the pipeline. Sixty-five percent of those surveyed liked the project in a March 7 Washington Post-ABC News poll, while 22 percent opposed it. Those in favor cited job creation as the reason for their approval.

A Rasmussen poll in January found 57 percent of likely voters in favor, 28 percent opposed.

A September 2013 poll by the Pew Center found 65 percent favored the project, versus 30 percent opposed.

But this week, a group of more than 100 scientists and economists from both the United States and Canada called on President Obama and Secretary Kerry to reject the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, based on their concerns that it would add to the devastating impacts of climate change already happening on every continent.

The group of signers included Nobel Prize winners and numerous lead authors and coordinating lead authors for the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessment reports.

“As you both have made clear, climate change is a very serious problem,” they wrote to Obama and Kerry. “We must address climate change by decarbonizing our energy supply. A critical first step is to stop making climate change worse by tapping into disproportionately carbon-intensive energy sources like tar sands bitumen. The Keystone XL pipeline will drive expansion of the energy-intensive strip-mining and drilling of tar sands from under Canada’s Boreal forest, increasing global carbon emissions. Keystone XL is a step in the wrong direction.”

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Thirty citizens groups delivered more than 800,000 messages to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell urging them to block the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. The 24-hour, 500,000 message goal was surpassed in just seven hours. Feb. 14, 2014 (Photo by 350.org)

They warned of carbon emissions from tar sands development and combustion, and the air and water pollution that plague communities along pipeline routes.

They called on President Obama and Secretary Kerry to fulfill their promises of being global leaders in the fight against climate change, a goal which cannot be realized if Keystone XL is approved.

“The world is looking to the United States to lead through strong climate action at home. This includes rejecting projects that will make climate change worse such as the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline,” they wrote.

A new bi-national coalition of ranchers, farmers and Native Americans, the Cowboy Indian Alliance, will be coming to Washington, DC in a few weeks to call on President Obama to protect their land and reject the Keystone XL pipeline.

Bill McKibben, co-founder and president of the grassroots climate advocacy group 350.org, said this week, “Oil companies and the Koch brothers have said yes; a huge array of groups from the nurses union to the Nobel Peace Prize laureates, economists to climate scientists, clergy to solar entrepreneurs have opposed it, making it one of the biggest and most contentious political clashes in decades. But it’s fitting that what may be the final arguments will come from the two groups that have fought longest and most powerfully: ranchers and farmers along the route, and Native Americans on both sides of the border.”

President Obama has not set a deadline date for his decision.

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