A pair of anti-Keystone XL senators invited people to offer anecdotes about cancer rates, contaminated fish and respiratory problems at sites where the oil is extracted, transported or refined.
They hope to use those human-interest stories to ramp up the pressure on the Obama administration as it prepares a final decision on the Keystone XL pipeline, and they argue that the focus of the debate so far has been too narrow.
Their guests Wednesday ranged from a Texas environmentalist to an Alberta doctor who has spent years trying to draw attention to health concerns in remote communities in the province.
The event organizer said she would send a letter to her longtime colleague in the Senate Democratic caucus, John Kerry, who is now the secretary of state, asking him to consider human health as he prepares a recommendation to President Barack Obama.
"I have shown you, or at least I have told you, how health miseries follow the tar sands," said Barbara Boxer, the chair of the Senate environment committee, at a news conference.
"Health miseries follow tar sands from extraction, to transport, to refining, to waste disposal."
Boxer said she was shocked to recently learn about health concerns in Alberta and wondered why the issue hadn't gotten more attention in the U.S. She expressed disappointment not only in the American media, but also in the U.S. State Department for skirting the health component in its recent environmental review of the Keystone project. That State Department report was seen as mostly favourable to the project.
It's far from certain Boxer's appeals will sway the issue at this late stage.
The president apparently indicated to state governors at a closed-door meeting this week that he plans to make a final decision on Keystone within a couple of months, following advice from Kerry.
When asked what leverage she had to try influencing the administration, Boxer replied that her leverage was "the truth," and promised to hold hearings, and more press conferences if need be.
"How many more Americans with asthma will we see — and is that in the national interest?" Boxer said, referring to the 90-day national-interest review currently being conducted by the administration.
"How are more Americans with cancer in the national interest? How is it in the national interest when kids playing baseball have to duck and cover from dangerous pollution? Children and families in the U.S. have a right to know now, before any decision to approve the Keystone tar sands pipeline is made."
One of the speakers at the event was John O'Connor, an Alberta doctor. He first went public in 2006 with concerns about what he considered to be elevated cancer rates around Fort Chipewyan, Alta.
Many of the 1,200 residents believe their proximity to oilsands development and major pulp mills in Fort McMurray have led to contamination of water and wildlife and a higher rate of cancer and other illnesses.
"The elders told me about six years ago, 'You are our voice,' and I believe that," O'Connor told The Canadian Press after making his presentation at a news conference with Boxer on Capitol Hill.
"I grabbed the opportunity to again focus the attention on what the Canadian governments — provincial and Alberta — are not doing."
When O'Connor initially raised his concerns, the Alberta Cancer Board quickly released a report saying overall rates of cancer in the community were average. Health Canada filed four complaints against O'Connor, all of which have since been dropped.
The board has since found elevated rates of some types of cancer in Fort McKay and Fort Chipewyan, although it's unclear whether those rates stem from the oilsands or other industrial or environmental factors.
Wednesday's event was timed to coincide with the release of a paper by the Natural Resources Defense Council environmental lobby group. The paper summarized past academic studies, regulatory reviews, industry documents and media articles that cited:
—Increased rates of leukemia and other cancers north of Edmonton, as well as anecdotal reports of nausea, headaches, skin rashes, joint pain and respiratory problems that forced some families to leave the area.
—Toxic chemicals in the Athabasca River's watershed.
—A cancer rate 30 per cent higher than normal in Fort Chipewyan.
It also described air pollution near refineries in the U.S. South, and ground contamination from ruptured pipelines and train accidents closer to the Canadian border.
However, pipeline advocates have repeatedly argued that blocking the project would only increase the risk of spills — not to mention greenhouse-gas emissions — from higher-polluting train transportation.
The State Department's recent environmental report agreed that Alberta oil will continue to be transported, with or without Keystone. It said the Alberta oil industry would grow at a similar pace unless oil prices consistently remained below $75 a barrel and all future pipeline projects were blocked.
TransCanada Corp., the company behind Keystone, responded by pointing to a study from the Royal Society of Canada that found no credible evidence of oilsands contamination high enough to cause cancer, and no threat to the viability of the Athabasca River ecosystem.
There was also good news for TransCanada on Wednesday.
An internal review by the State Department's inspector general sided against environmentalists who levelled conflict-of-interest allegations against the company that wrote the environmental-impact assessment.
The review suggested improvements in the department's contracting process, but it found no improper behaviour by contractor ERM, which had done past work for TransCanada Corp.
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