Photo by Flickr user John Duffy

The proposed TransCanada Keystone XL Pipeline risks endangering U.S. fresh water sources and the public health of surrounding communities due to probable “dirty” oil spills and the environmental impacts of transporting oil that produces three to four more times greenhouse gas emissions than conventional oil. These adverse consequences will reportedly disproportionately affect the health and safety of minority and low-income communities, including a predominately black and Latino neighborhood in Port Arthur, Texas. The pipeline will transport some of the dirtiest oil, linking tar sands oil of western Canada to refineries and ports in Texas along the Gulf Coast. Tar sands oil is highly acidic and corrosive and is considered the most toxic fossil fuel on the planet.

Indigenous people living in Fort Chipewyan in Northern Alberta, Canada, where tar sands oil is extracted, report the oil is linked to staggering hikes in cancer rates as a result of living downstream from tar sands production. In response to ongoing serious health concerns, Cora Voyageur, a sociology professor from the University of Calgary, recently launched an independent study to assess the health effects of these oil sands on nearby communities, including other health issues like autism.

The proposed Keystone XL Pipeline will cross key sources of drinking and agricultural water, including the Ogallala Aquifer that supplies fresh water for two million people in eight U.S. states. Environmental activists warn that the pipeline will pose a threat to the aquifer, which is considered one of the world’s largest underground sources of fresh water. Due to the close proximity of the pipeline with some parts of the aquifer, coupled with the high risks of oil spills, many are concerned about the likelihood of water contamination.

TransCanada’s first tar sands pipeline, Keystone I, commenced operations in 2010 and experienced fourteen leaks within its first year. Shortly thereafter, the U.S. government issued a Corrective Action Order to temporarily shut down pipeline operations, finding that “the continued operation of the pipeline without corrective measures would be hazardous to life, property and the environment.” Although operations restarted, the pipeline has repeatedly been shut down due to the frequency of oil spills. Despite TransCanada’s projections of only five spills over a fifty-year span, as of October 2012, at least thirty-five spills have occurred. Thus, initial projections were grossly underestimated, a fact which increases concerns as the U.S. government considers approval of the XL pipeline.

The proposed pipeline is currently pending a federal permit from the U.S. Department of State (DOS). In March 2013, the DOS released a draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement for the proposed pipeline that, according to the Sierra Club, understates the adverse risks to Americans’ water and air, as well as the human health of nearby communities. Rather, the report focuses largely on prospective job creation and American energy independence, minimizing potential adverse impacts the pipeline will have on the climate or the health of U.S. residents.

The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) provides in Article 5(d)(iv) that a State Party must guarantee the right of everyone, without distinction as to race, color, or national or ethnic origin, to equal enjoyment to the right to public health. Both Canada and the United States have ratified the ICERD, thereby obligating the countries to protect their citizens from significant public health risks. Article 25(1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) also provides that “everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family.” Although the UDHR initially was not viewed as a legally binding document, it has gained an authoritative force encompassing international human rights norms. Moreover, in 2010, a resolution of the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) recognized the right to water and sanitation as legally binding for all Member States.

Despite growing concerns about public health and safety, coupled with the poor track record of TransCanada’s first tar sands pipeline, the U.S. government continues to consider approving the pipeline. In light of the various negative impacts from construction, potential oil spills, climate change, and health risks, the government is legally obligated to ensure that all persons have access to clean and safe water and do not face adverse health conditions as a result of the project. Approval of the Keystone XL Project will likely jeopardize both the United States and Canada’s compliance with ICERD and the HRC’s resolution, posing a significant threat to some of America’s already vulnerable communities. Health risks of nearby low-income neighborhoods heighten concerns about the project’s disproportionate effect on minorities. Moreover, access to safe drinking water is further endangered due to the environmental impacts of transporting dirty oil.