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U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) gestures during her speech to the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, California August 31, 2010.ROBERT GALBRAITH/Reuters

Washington will play host to a new discussion regarding the proposed Keystone XL pipeline on Wednesday, and this time the health concerns of Northern Alberta communities next to oil sands operations will be front and centre.

As the U.S. State Department mulls a final approval, California Senator Barbara Boxer will launch another volley against the proposed pipeline project, holding a press conference to "expose the harmful health implications associated with tar sands oil and the proposed Keystone XL pipeline."

The event will feature U.S. scientists and environmentalists, and John O'Connor, a physician and long-time advocate for the health of First Nations communities in Alberta's oil sands region.

Ms. Boxer, a Democrat, is an ardent opponent of the Keystone XL pipeline, a $5.4-billion project that would transport Alberta crude to markets on the Texas Gulf Coast. Ms. Boxer and other critics say it would worsen the environmental effects of Canadian oil sands development by opening the door to industry expansion.

However some Democrats, including Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, are in favour of the Canada-U.S. crude link. Canadian oil producers – as well as both the Alberta and federal governments – say even without the pipeline, oil will continue to be shipped by rail. They argue the pipeline is simply a more efficient means of transporting landlocked Alberta bitumen to lucrative Texas markets and refineries able to process heavy oil.

In the end, the decision rests with the State Department and U.S. President Barack Obama.

More than a decade ago, Dr. O'Connor raised red flags regarding health concerns in the oil sands region. At one point, he faced allegations of causing "undue alarm" among residents of Fort Chipewyan, but the Alberta College of Physicians and Surgeons closed that file in 2009. The same year, the Alberta Cancer Board released a report that found elevated cancer cases in Fort Chipewyan over the 1995 to 2006 study period. Wrangling between the province, Ottawa, the industry and First Nations followed, and an independent study examining whether health issues are linked to oil sands pollution has never been completed.

Dr. O'Connor continues to work as a physician in First Nations communities located downstream from production, and has advised landowners in the Peace River region who believe their health has suffered as a result of emissions from oil sands operations there.

"The pipeline going ahead is going to open the floodgates in terms of development. I'm just fearful for what will happen five to 10 years down the road," Dr. O'Connor said in an interview Tuesday.

When the State Department released its final environmental impact statement Jan. 31 – which concluded Keystone would be unlikely to alter greenhouse gas emissions – Ms. Boxer released a statement that said she isn't "satisfied with any analysis that does not accurately document what is really happening on the ground when it comes to the extraction, transport, refining, and waste disposal of dirty, filthy tar sands oil.

"My biggest concerns continue to be the serious health impacts on communities and the dangerous carbon pollution that comes from tar sands oil."

Follow Kelly Cryderman on Twitter: @KellyCrydermanOpens in a new window

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