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Indigenous Resistance Grows Strong in Keystone XL Battle

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On cloudy days, heavy smoke fills the air of Ponca City, Okla., with grey smog that camouflages itself into the sky. The ConocoPhillips oil refinery that makes its home there uses overcast days as a disguise to release more toxins into the air. These toxins are brimming with benzene - a chemical that, according to the Centers for Disease Control, can cause leukemia, anemia and even decrease the size of women's ovaries. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, in 2008 the ConocoPhillips refinery released over 2,000 pounds of this chemical into the air in Ponca City.

"Of the maybe 800 of us that live locally, we have averaged over the last five to seven years maybe one funeral a week," explained Casey Camp-Horinek, a Ponca woman and longtime activist. "Where we used to have dances every week, now most people are in mourning."

The refinery is located only 1,000 yards behind Standing Bear Park, which is named after the Ponca chief who, in 1877, led his people on their Trail of Tears, from the Ponca homelands in northern Nebraska to present day Oklahoma. But the park is more than a memorial to the distant past. In 1992, the oil giant's tank farm spilled and contaminated ground water in a nearby predominantly Ponca neighborhood. As a result, ConocoPhillips agreed to purchase the contaminated land and tear down the 200 homes that were on it. In its place, the company built Standing Bear Park - a bitter testament to the Ponca people's history of forced relocation and genocide.

"We live in a situation that could only be described as environmental genocide," said Camp-Horinek. Beyond the refineries, she explained, "We also have had the misfortune of living on top of a spider web of pipelines as a result of ConocoPhillips being here."

Some of these pipelines are transporting Canadian tar sands bitumen, which carries chemicals such as natural gas, hydrogen sulfide, benzene and toluene. This highly toxic diluted substance runs through large pipelines such as Enbridge's Pegasus line, which recently burst in Mayflower, Ark., and would also flow through TransCanada's contested Keystone XL pipeline if completed.


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