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Originally published Wednesday, April 4, 2012 at 5:11 PM

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Tar-sand risks threaten health of Puget Sound

The risk from tar sands is too high for local and state agencies to allow these synthetic oils and raw materials increasingly to flow into Washington refineries, say a group of environmentalists concerned about the health of Puget Sound.

Special to The Times

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LOST in the fight over the Keystone XL pipeline is the reality that we have already seen a steady uptick in the flow of tar sands feed stocks — "synthetic oil" or the raw material for it — to our five Washington refineries by pipelines or from tankers transiting the Salish Sea. And there are plans on the books for much, much more.

Kinder Morgan — a multinational company also trying to build a coal-export facility on the Columbia River — intends to more than double the capacity of its Trans Mountain pipeline from Alberta to Burrard Inlet in Vancouver, B.C., while deepening its port there to utilize tankers larger than those allowed to enter Washington waters. Should a spill occur, the international boundary in the Strait of Juan de Fuca won't be much of a barrier to the toxic spread from these larger vessels.

Tar sands tanker traffic could nearly triple if Kinder Morgan's plans go forward, with commensurate risk of spills in sensitive salmon and orca habitat. But the problem is not only the increased risk of spills; the nature of tar-sands material is also troubling.

A tar-sands spill is much more difficult to clean up than a spill of conventional oil — just ask the folks in Michigan who are now in their second year trying to clean up more than a million gallons of tar-sands chemicals spilled from a pipeline into the Kalamazoo River. Conventional oil would have floated on the river's surface, but the tar-sands spill quickly sank to the bottom. The result: The Kalamazoo River will suffer significant long-term damage.

And what about refineries? Refineries that use tar sands are more at risk of fire and explosion than those that don't. This higher risk comes from the corrosive nature of many tar sands feed stocks compared with conventional oil, and the extremely high temperatures required for processing.

In the Pacific Northwest, we already have a history of refinery fires. We should be reducing that risk, not increasing it with more tar sands feed stocks to our refineries via pipelines and tankers.

Tar sands feed stocks can also be highly sulfurous, leading to higher levels of sulfur dioxide pollution from refineries. Sulfur dioxide is a health problem because of its known tendency to damage breathing and cardiovascular systems, and its tendency to aggravate conditions such as asthma. In subjecting refinery communities to additional health risks, tar sands are making an already bad situation even worse: The Environmental Protection Agency has long known that communities living nearby refineries have higher rates of cancer and respiratory disease.

And tar sands don't just increase human health risks. Our region's iconic species are also put at risk by increasing tar-sands imports. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's "Recovery Plan for Southern Resident Killer Whales," oil spills "are potentially catastrophic to the Southern Resident (orca) population."

We learned from the Exxon Valdez spill that an oil spill not only directly threatens orcas, it also could wipe out large numbers of the fish they eat and severely disrupt the food web of Puget Sound.

As our backyard becomes a new "end zone" in the U.S./Canadian tar sands political football game, we need to take action at state and municipal levels to protect our water, air, communities and wildlife.

You can help by participating in the Department of Ecology's oil spill rule update (http://www.ecy.wa.gov/programs/spills/rules/1106.html) to ensure maximum response capacity for a tar-sands spill. And you can work with us to persuade the Seattle City Council and other local and regional governmental bodies to use their power against tar sands in the Pacific Northwest.

We can't let a tar-sands disaster — like the one in Kalamazoo, Mich. — happen in our back yard.

Aaron Sanger is the director of U.S. campaigns for ForestEthics, based in Bellingham. Thomas Bancroft is the executive director of People for Puget Sound, based in Seattle. Fred Felleman, Northwest consultant for Friends of the Earth, and Matthew Krogh, water-quality advocate at RE Sources for Sustainable Communities, in Bellingham, contributed to this column.

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