Nurses host Stop Austerity, Stop Keystone XL Bridgewalk in San Francisco

A large poster with the message, “Stop Austerity, Stop Keystone XL” was prominently displayed as about 1,500 union and environmental activists on June 20 marched across the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco to express their opposition to the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, a 1,700 mile pipeline that when completed will transport 900,000 barrels of oil a day from Canada to Texas.

The June 20 Stop Austerity, Stop Keystone XL Bridgewalk was organized by National Nurses United, the nation’s largest union of registered nurses. NNU opposes the pipeline because of the union’s concerns about the pipeline’s impact on public health and climate change.

“Nurses today care for scores of patients struggling with serious health problems, from lung disease to heart attacks, to cancer, that are linked to environmental pollution,” said Karen Higgins, co-president of NNU in a statement announcing the action. “The Keystone Pipeline threatens to severely accelerate the environmental health crisis as well as undermining our efforts to slow the adverse effects of climate change.”

According to NNU, the health problems begin with the process of extracting oil from tar sands in Canada and continue throughout the transportation process down to Texas.

Massive amounts of water are used in the extraction process. During extraction, the water is polluted with toxic substances and dumped into holding pools that can seep into the groundwater.

“Communities living downstream from the ponds have seen spikes in rates of rare cancers, renal failure, lupus, and hyperthyroidism,” reads an explanation on NNU’s website of why the union opposes the pipeline.  “In one small community of just 1,200 residents, 100 have already died from cancer.”

As the oil makes its way down the line, leaks and spills can also cause problems.

NNU reports that in 2010 “a tar sands oil pipeline ruptured near Marshall, Minnesota.  The diluted bitumen, a degraded form of petroleum, traveled 40 miles down the Kalamazoo River to Morrow Lake. More than a month later, state officials found that half of the residents in communities along the river reported respiratory ailments and other symptoms associated with the spill.”

More recently in 2013, “an Exxon Mobil pipeline with tar sands oil ruptured near Mayflower, Ark. Two months later local residents continue to complain of health problems, including persistent coughs and headaches. Independent water and air tests have shown elevated levels of contaminants.”

Perhaps the biggest concern about the pipeline is its impact on climate change.

The US Environmental Protection Agency reports that tar sands well-to-tank carbon emissions are about 82 percent higher than conventional oil drilling.

“Carbon emissions are a major factor in intensifying climate change,” reads the NNU explanation. “Higher air temperatures can increase bacteria-related food poisoning, such as salmonella, and animal-borne diseases such as West Nile virus. Ground level ozone contaminants can damage lung tissue, reduce lung function, and increase respiratory ailments.

“Pediatricians have said they are already witnessing a rise in vector-borne diseases including diarrhea, cholera, gastroenteritis, typhoid, and hepatitis due to environmental factors and the effects of climate change.”

Joining NNU on the bridgewalk were activists from a number of the groups including 350.org, Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, CREDO, Greenpeace, Food and Water Watch, Asian Pacific Environmental Network, 350BayArea.org, Sierra Club SF Bay Chapter, Equal Health Network, Center for Biological Diversity, Keystone XL Action Council, UNITE HERE! Local 2850, Citizens Climate Lobby, Bay Localize, and Movement Generation.

The Amalgamated Transit Union and the Transport Workers Union have issued a joint statement of opposition to Keystone XL, and members of the CWA and SEIU have been prominent in other actions aimed at opposing the pipeline.

Construction unions and the Teamsters support the building of the pipeline because of the jobs that it will create.

The bridgewalk was one activity of the NNU’s annual Staff Nurses Assembly. At the assembly, the nurses in addition to discussing the impact of the Keystone pipeline will talk about the union’s anti-austerity campaign.

One feature of this campaign is the union’s support for Inclusive Prosperity Act, a bill sponsored by Rep. Keith Ellison, a Democrat from Minnesota, that would add a small financial transactions tax on high-volume, speculative financial trades.

This so-called Robin Hood tax could generate about $1 trillion over ten years that could be used to offset austerity measures and produce millions of jobs building and repairing infrastructure, improving public health, improving the quality of health care, and upgrading public education and public higher education.

NNU was one of the early supporters of the Robin Hood tax and has played a major role in building grassroots support for the tax and the investment in public goods that would be possible with money generated by the tax.

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