Keystone XL stories: Karla Land

Keystone XL stories: Karla Land

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Karla Land settled in Channelview, Texas in 1979. She was born and raised in Texas, leaving the state for college and to pursue her passion for scuba diving in the Bahamas. She returned after marrying her husband and together they own and operate Land Cycles, a motorcycle repair shop and garage in town.

The Keystone XL pipeline, if approved, will not be the first pipeline to run crude through Channelview, Texas. Channelview is located near the San Jacinto River and Houston ship channel where oil companies like ExxonMobil, Shell and Chevron refine and ship petroleum. The ship channel is home to 150 industries that stretch from Galveston Bay to the eastern edge of Houston. These companies pollute Channelview with toxic emissions and many people in the community — often called “cancer alley” — suffer from respiratory diseases or cancer.

Karla became active in the community group North Channelview Concerned Citizens Against Pollution after learning that a toxic waste incinerator was going to be constructed near her home. For nine years the group fought the incinerator and prevented its construction through advocacy and the courts.

This community, which has already struggled against so much, must now mount a fight to stop the Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline and the pollution it would bring to Channelview.

The following is a transcript of an interview between Karla and Friends of the Earth staff about her story and efforts to protect her community from the Keystone XL pipeline.

You can read more stories from the front lines of the fight to stop the pipeline here.

Besides the incinerator, what environmental health problems has the community faced in the past?

Shell oil blew up in 1989, killing a lot of people and polluting the neighborhood. There was an explosion at Arco chemical in the early 90’s and they subsequently changed their name to distance themselves from what happened. Seventeen pipelines cross the San Jancito River in the Channel. In 1994 the river flooded but Texaco, Valero, and Exxon refused to cut off their lines and as a result the pipelines exploded. The river was on fire for a week.1 While the river was burning there was arsenic in the air. The barges burned. The policemen evacuated the neighborhood and a lot of them came down with bone cancer.

It is scary because we get drinking water from Trinity River and Lake Houston near the river. The San Jacinto River is so dirty. My husband and I do not do Jet Ski repairs simply because we don’t want to go into the river.

The industry has set up these Citizen Advisory Committees where they invite us to meetings once a month so we can get answers to our questions. I was on the committee for three years, but after the first year I realized it was nothing but a PR stunt. They made us think they were listening but nothing was ever accomplished — and it’s still going on.

How did the community fight past projects like the incinerator?

It started with a small notice in the local paper and citizens began researching what it was, and then started meeting to figure out how to stop it. We formed Concerned Citizens Against Pollution, and with other groups we filed a lawsuit against the company. The court agreed to give them a permit, but only if they brought construction up to standards (they were going to build it as cheaply as possible, but it wasn’t safe). But the company wasn’t willing to spend the extra money so they abandoned their plans. It took nine years to stop the incinerator.

How did you hear about the proposed Keystone XL pipeline?

We had no information about it until Sierra Club called us about a pipeline coming out of Canada. We weren’t given a public meeting; outside groups had to fight for one, and finally representatives from the government came down to answer our questions. No one at the meeting said this oil is safe. They keep talking about jobs but we know they are transient jobs. Congressman Gene Greene took credit for the meeting, but it was really just a nice photo op for him. I walked up to Greene after the meeting and I asked him to stop the pipeline and he just put his head down and wouldn’t look me in the eye or say anything. We have no representation, no coherence in the community, we are on our own.

How would the Keystone XL pipeline impact your community? Are people in the community working to fight the pipeline?

This is the most toxic, nasty oil that is available to us, and we know it’s a bad idea. The real truth is that people want to stop it but we’re a working class community and there is so much else going on in our everyday lives that people don’t have time to go and fight it . That doesn’t mean they accept it. We are very aware if industry tells us a little bit of the bad that there is a whole lot of it. You never get the whole story from them. That is why it’s important to dig out the truth ourselves, but that takes time and for working class people that is a heavy burden.

Everybody asks, “Why do you live here?.” I stay because I met my husband here; it’s where we live, it is where our families are, where we were born. We would like to leave but we would be leaving our world. It doesn’t need to be this way. I was hoping President Obama would stress the need for changes, especially after the oil spill in the Gulf – we don’t even know the full extent of the damage. We got to get off of this oil. This pipeline is a bad thing and if we have come to the point where we’re relying on the nastiest type of oil out there, then isn’t it time to look for alternatives?

1. In October 1994, the San Jacinto River caught fire because several gasoline and diesel fuel spills from pipelines that were ruptured by a severe flood. More than 40,000 barrels or 2.2 million gallons of hazardous materials were discharged into the river. The Environmental Protection Agency considers this river one of the most polluted rivers in Texas because of its high concentration of pollutants.

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