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Mary Annette Pember
Indian Country Today

Health professionals and Indigenous activists held a day of solidarity in St. Paul, Minnesota, and other U.S cities on Aug. 17 calling for an end to the construction of the Enbridge Line 3 project. They describe shutting down Line 3 as a critical health protective measure. In St. Paul, a delegation of health professionals delivered a letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers office calling on the Biden administration to revoke permits for Line 3.

Authored by members of Health Professionals for a Healthy Climate, the letter cited the United Nations recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report declaring climate change as a health crisis, noting that burning tar sands oil to be carried by Line 3 would exacerbate the problem.

Similar events were also held in Oregon, Washington, California, Wisconsin, Michigan, Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C., according to organizers.

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Dr. Jonathan Patz, professor and director of the Global Health Institute at the University of Wisconsin, joined the group in St. Paul. Patz was lead author of the UN climate change report in 2007, when the organization shared the Nobel Prize with Al Gore.

Patz told Indian Country Today that solvents such as benzene and tuluol, both carcinogenic, are added to tar sands oil as diluents enabling it to flow more easily through pipelines. Line 3 will carry bitumen or tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada, to Superior, Wisconsin.

Benzene also increases acidity in bitumen increasing the possibility of pipeline corrosion and oil spills along the Line, according to Patz.

In an email, Juli Kellner, communications specialist for Enbridge, wrote, “Light hydrocarbon, or diluent is similar in nature to white gas or camping fuel used in a lantern or portable stove.”

The oil industry uses dozens of different formulas for use in diluents, the exact composition are considered to be trade secrets. White gas does contain benzene which is classified by the World Health Organization as a group one carcinogen. Prolonged exposure even to low amounts of benzene can have negative impacts to red and white blood cells.

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Kellner noted that, according to Enbridge’s Mainline Pipeline Configuration, Line 3 will carry light oil. It’s new circumference of 34 inches, however, allows it the capacity to also carry heavier tar sands oil.

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“The replacement of Line 3 is the most studied pipeline project in Minnesota history and is not an expansion but a restoration of the pipeline's original design capacity,” Kellner added. “The replacement was approved only after much public input and six years of science-based reviews and multiple approvals. Replacing the pipeline with one made of thicker steel with more advanced coatings is already done in Canada, Wisconsin, and North Dakota - and is nearly 90% complete in Minnesota.”

Professor Teddie Potter, director of Planetary Health at the University of Minnesota, also attended the event and expressed concern about the increased rates of COVID-19 in Minnesota associated with out-of-state Line 3 workers.

“Out of state pipeline workers also pose a risk to the increase of missing and murdered Indigenous women,” she said. Four pipeline construction workers have been arrested in two separate sex trafficking stings in the state this year.

(Related: Sex trafficking sting nets 2 more Enbridge workers)

Taysha Martineau, citizen of the Fond du Lac tribe and water protector told the crowd, “I see it as my responsibility to take a stand; if they build Line 3 they might as well bury me beneath it.”

“It’s chilling that this pipeline will cross the Mississippi River two times; a spill would impact the drinking water of 18 million people,” Potter said.

On a broader scale, health professionals at the event noted that there is now no doubt that human activity, mostly burning of oil, coal and gas are causing today’s climate change resulting in more weather disasters like heat waves, droughts that further cause malnutrition and contaminated water.

"Americans need to—and want to—end our addiction to oil, because it’s exacting a terrible toll on our health and destabilizing our climate,” Patz said. “The carbon intensive extraction from open-pit mining makes tar sands the world’s most destructive oil operation threatening our health and the environment. And like tar in cigarettes, the bitumen in tar sands oil, which is released when pipes inevitably burst, is carcinogenic. Use of this hazardous substance must end here and now.”

Expanding on the comparison of tar sands oil to tobacco use, Patz noted that the danger to public health posed by carcinogens in both substances is an entirely preventable community health crisis.

Potter added, “The benefits of this pipeline are far outweighed by its huge risks to human health; as a nurse this makes me quite angry.”

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