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Why I'm On A Hunger Strike

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Workers! Demand Valero divest from tar sands. The life you save may just be your own.  

I'm a fourth generation fisherwoman from the Texas Gulf Coast. For 40 years I have made a living on a shrimp boat plying the Gulf Coast waters. But, for the past 25 years, I have fought a long and difficult battle with industry to preserve the health and well-being of our Texas bays and marine life for our children and our children's children.
 
Today I am involved in one of my most difficult challenges. I am on the 35th day of a hunger strike that I began to convince Valero to divest from Canada's tar sands.
 
Many stakeholders have been pulled into this fight that is so colossal and mind boggling that it can almost be called biblical and not be an exaggeration. The indigenous tribes of the First Nation in Canada, land owners, cities' water supplies, communities surrounding the refineries, and the very planet that we call home are all being threatened by the extraction of tar sands and the XL pipeline that is snaking its way from Alberta, Canada to the Gulf Coast of Texas.
 
Workers in the refinery don't get mentioned much and that's pretty surprising given that workers are ground zero for exposure from the refining of tar sands.    
 
When a refinery uses a bitumen blend from Canada's tar sands, it is using a raw material that contains large quantities of sulfur. This means U.S. refineries using tar sands generally produce more intense sulfur dioxide air pollution that is, today, not adequately regulated. 

The result is heightened health risks, not only to communities living near tar sands refineries, but also to the workers inside. In fact, workers are the most direct line for sulfur dioxide poisoning.

A few statistics from publicly available sources indicate that, in general, tar sands refineries spew more sulfur dioxide pollution per barrel produced than refineries that do not use tar sands. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), short-term exposure to elevated sulfur dioxide levels is associated with reduced lung function, chest tightness, wheezing, shortness of breath, respiratory illness, deterioration of the lung's defense systems, and the aggravation of cardiovascular systems.

In addition, a refinery's processing of tar sands leaves a toxic cocktail of 20 by-products (often at 1,000 times above the safe limit) that include the cancer-causing chemicals benzene, toluene, and hydrogen sulfide.

Now I know what some workers are going to say when they read this. I know because I've asked them and they say, "Smells like money to me!" or "Not me! I'm healthy!" Or "That's why I have two life insurance policies." Then stuff happens.

The experts say 870,000 workers get sick and 55,000-60,000 die each year in the United States from an occupational disease. Then the experts add the caveat that these numbers are undoubtedly underestimates. How much of an underestimate? Well, as much as 69 percent of illnesses and injuries never make it to the Bureau of Labor statistics.  And the vast majority of workers with an occupational illness never receive any benefits from workers compensation.
Ask any injured worker who's developed an illness brought on by exposure to a chemical and he can recite a litany of reasons why help never comes.

Work-related illnesses are difficult to identify, especially those with long periods between exposure and illness. Part of the problem is simply an absence of data on the health effects of hazardous exposures. Absolutely nothing is known about potential toxicity for more than 85 percent of chemicals in use in industry. In addition, routine training on known hazards and their effects is lacking. The average doctor receives four hours or less of training in occupational medicine in a four-year medical school curriculum.

But the major reason is Occupational Safety and Health Administration's (OSHA) reliance on employers self-reporting.  Employers have strong incentives for under-reporting illnesses or not at all. Businesses with few illnesses on the job are least likely to receive inspections from OSHA, they have lower worker compensation insurance premiums, and they have a better chance of winning government contracts.

There are other reasons. Employers and Worker Compensation Insurers have major incentives to deny a connection between a workplace exposure and disease. Every occupational disease that is not recognized saves them money by socializing the cost on to someone else, mostly injured workers, their families, and taxpayers. 

Workers themselves may not want to suggest their health problem is work related, fearing they might lose their job or suffer retribution from an employer angered by a Workers Compensation claim. Workers report widespread harassment and intimidation when they report an injury or illness. Reports, testimonies, and new accounts show that many employers fire or discipline workers who report injuries or illnesses or complain about a safety problem.  Other employers add demerits to a workers record for reportable illnesses or injuries or absenteeism that resulted from an alleged safety violation.

Again -- this is all just to say: Workers! Demand Valero divest from tar sands. The life you save may just be your own.   

 

www.texasinjuredworkers.org

Diane Wilson is a long time environmental activist, author and injured worker advocate o n the Texas Gulf Coast.
She is presently on a hunger strike to stop V a lero from investing in the Canada tar sands.  She is a cofounder of Texas Injured Workers www.texasinjuredworkers.org and a board member of  the Injured Workers National Network  www.iwnn.org and info@iwnn.org

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