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Why You Don't Want Your Local Oil Refinery Processing Materials From Tar Sands

Because it might make you really, really sick. But as easy-to-access oil becomes more scarce, oil companies are turning more and more to tar sands products for their fuel.

In the early evening on August 6th, residents of Richmond, California were confronted with a series of frightening explosions from a nearby Chevron oil refinery. They were asked to stay inside with all doors and windows closed. When the smoke clouds cleared (I could see them billowing upwards 18 miles away in San Francisco), dozens of people headed to the emergency room, complaining of shortness of breath, itchy eyes, burning throats, and more. It could have been a lot worse if the Chevron refinery had been processing material from Canada’s tar sands instead of conventional crude oil.

A new report from ForestEthics explores the community health hazards that come along with refineries processing toxic, corrosive bitumen blends (the stuff that comes out of Canada’s tar sands) to make synthetic oil. The main danger is that tar sands refineries emit significantly higher amounts of sulfur dioxide, which is linked to wheezing, chest tightness, overall reduced lung function, cardiovascular issues, and respiratory weakness. Sulfur dioxide is especially dangerous for people who have preexisting heart and lung conditions.

"If Chevron in Richmond had been using bitumen blends and that was the source of the fire, the surrounding communities would have suffered from sulfur pollution that would have been extremely hazardous to their health," says Aaron Sanger, the author of the ForestEthics report.

Explosions like the one at the Richmond Chevron refinery are more likely to happen at refineries that process bitumen blends because they are so corrosive. That’s bad news for the often poor communities that surround these refineries.

The map below shows all of the refineries in the U.S. that received bitumen blends or synthetic crude from the tar sands—but keep in mind that many of these refineries don’t actually process the stuff. They only buy it.

There are a number of refineries in the U.S. that do process bitumen blends and synthetic crude, and a handful that process the majority of what ends up in the U.S.—located in places like Great Falls, Montana; Joliet, Illinois; Lemont, Illinois; Cheyenne, Wyoming; Pine Bend, Minnesota; and Billings, Montana. "The top bitumen blend users are a small number of refineries in the Upper Midwest and the Rockies," says Sanger. These communities are already feeling the effects of bitumen blend processing, which has been happening in the U.S. for the past decade or so as the light, sweet crude oil we’ve been using for years is becoming increasingly difficult to find, leading oil companies to turn toward tar sands.

ForestEthics describes in the report the experience of one woman living near a bitumen blend-processing refinery in Detroit:

Late in 2010, Adrienne Crawford woke up in the middle of the night, choking on chemical fumes in her home on Pleasant Street in Detroit. With training and equipment provided by watchdog group Global Community Monitor, Adrienne collected an air sample from her home and found it contained a toxic cocktail of 20 chemicals at 1,000 times above the safe limit—including the cancer-causing chemicals benzene, toluene, and hydrogen sulfide, which are known by-products of the Detroit Marathon refinery’s processing of tar sands. According to an investigation by the EPA, the toxic fumes in Adrienne’s home probably came from toxic waste water, which the Marathon refinery dumped into Detroit’s sewer system.

The number of refineries in the U.S. processing material from Canada’s tar sands isn’t increasing at the moment because oil companies need more tankers and pipelines to transport the stuff (see the Keystone XL pipeline debate) and refineries need to get permission before they can substantially change their operations.

That doesn’t mean people should remain complacent. Sanger cites big brands in particular as having the ability to sway public sentiment about the tar sands. "We need to move big U.S. brands away from their growing connection to the problem of Canada’s tar sands. They have the influence to shift thinking about transportation fuels," he says.