The tar sands of Alberta and toxic waste
Saturday, September 20, 2008
Fred McDonald, a Métis trapper and storyteller extraordinaire, often questioned the reasoning and science behind the proliferation of toxic ponds and end-pit lakes. Before he died in 2007 of kidney failure, McDonald lived in Fort McKay, an Aboriginal community 72 kilometres north of Fort Saskatchewan. The stench of hydrocarbons from the surrounding mines often hangs heavily in the air there, and in 2006, an ammonia release from a Syncrude facility hospitalized more than 20 children.
On a fall day in 2006, McDonald sat in his kitchen, sipping a glass of rat root juice ("It's good for everything," he told me) and breathing through an oxygen tube. The day before, he had spent several hours on a dialysis machine. McDonald's kidneys were failing but not his mind. He recalled the days when Tar Island was a good place to fish and hunt. (Tar Island was so named by local Cree and Métis after the bitumen that often oozed down its banks. In the late 1960s, Suncor transformed the island into a tailings pond, the first in the tar sands.) "It always had moose on it. We loved that island. We are slowly losing everything."
McDonald was born on the river, and he had trapped, fished, farmed and worked for the oil companies. He fondly remembered the 1930 and 1940s, when Syrian fur traders exchanged pots and pans for muskrat and beaver furs along the Athabasca River. Families lived off the land then and had feasts of rabbit. They netted jackfish, pickerel and whitefish all winter long. "Everyone walked or paddled, and the people were healthy," McDonald said. "No one travels that river anymore. There is nothing in that river. It's polluted. Once you could dip your cup and have a nice cold drink from that river, and now you can't."
McDonald said that tar-sands pollution is killing berries. The mines are also draining the surrounding muskeg of water: "It's our future source of water, and it's drying." Climate warming has changed the clear blue ice of the Athabasca River in the winter to a dangerous slush. McDonald had recently told his son not to have any more children: "They are going to suffer. They are going to have a tough time to breathe and will have nothing to drink." He dismissed the talk of reclaiming waste ponds and open-pit mines as a white-skinned fairy tale. "There is no way in this world that you can put Mother Earth back like it was."
Because of "the bad behaviour of clays," Natural Resources Canada researcher Randy Mikula suspects that tar-sands waste won't settle to solid form for 1,000 years, so "something has to be done." Right now the best solution might be a "brute force" centrifugal approach, says Mikula. Waste is spun (much like lettuce in a spinner) in order to create material that is dry and stackable, while recovering water at the same time. Both Syncrude and Suncor have started pilot projects. "We could reduce water usage by a barrel, which means less water withdrawn from the Athabasca River," Mikula says.
The volume of sand and toxic waste produced by the tar sands to date is as great as the agricultural drainage and sewage water the water-short nation of Egypt, with a population of 80 million, reuses every year. By 2015, the tar sands could be creating ponds of wastewater three times that size.
The growing waste problem is nowhere more evident than downstream in Fort Chipewyan, where the Athabasca and Peace rivers spill into Lake Athabasca. About 10 years ago, Raymond Ladouceur, a 65-year-old commercial Métis fishermen, started to find something new in his pickerel nets: damned ugly fish. The deformities included crooked tails, humpbacks, bulging eyes and skin tumours. "Jesus, I was pulling them out all the time," says Ladouceur. "But we threw the deformed fish away. They weren't fit for human consumption."
In 2002, Ladouceur and other fishermen packed up 90 kilos of the deformed fish and flew them off to Fort McMurray for study by Alberta Environment. Nobody from the government department picked up the fish over the weekend, though, and they rotted.
Like most residents of Fort Chipewyan, Ladouceur believes there is something definitely wrong with the water. He has a list of suspects. Abandoned uranium mines on the east end of the lake, for example, have been leaking for years. "God knows how much radium is in this lake," he says. Then there are the pulp mills and, of course, the tar sands and tar ponds. Ladouceur says his cousin collected yellow scum from the river downstream from the mines and dried it, and "it caught on fire." Almost everyone in Fort Chip has witnessed oil spills or leaks on the Athabasca River.
The governments of Alberta and Canada, along with the multinational companies, insist not only that they'll clean up the whole mess but that rapid tar-sands development is sustainable. "Alberta is proving that environmental protection and economic development can happen at the same time," promises a 2008 provincial propaganda sheet entitled "Opportunity and Balance." The Canadian Parliament, an institution less inclined to hubris, talks about groping "towards sustainable development" in its 2007 tar sands report.
Alberta's bitumen apologists swear that "work is progressing to return the disturbed land to a natural state after development, and it will be done right." The province's former ambassador to the United States, Murray Smith, even assured our number-one oil market that the industry will achieve "100 percent long-term restoration of the lands it makes use of." Why, major tar-sand companies have even planted 7.5 million tree seedlings. The Mining Association of Canada says reclaiming open-pit mines can be done with a "vision worthy of a Group of Seven artist."
According to the Alberta government, open-pit mines will eventually obliterate 3,500 square kilometres of forest. The government likes to minimize the scale of the destruction by saying that it's "less than one percent of boreal forest area" in Canada. (In other words, it's perfectly okay to destroy small places.) Whatever the Orwellian rhetoric, the forest-top removal will cover an area four times larger than that of New York City. Outdoor enthusiasts can imagine half of Banff National Park flattened and excavated.
Even at that, the mines make up only a small part of the wreckage created by the
megaproject. The Alberta government has leased an additional 50,000 square kilometres of land (and another 100,000 square kilometres await global investors) for in-situ projects including steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD). Canada's four famed mountain parks - Jasper, Banff, Yoho, and Kootenay - could easily fit into this industrial zone with approximately 20,000 square kilometres left over. SAGD development will slice and dice the land with thousands of industrial well sites, seismic lines, pipelines and roads. This fragmentation will transform the forest into a bitumen park, exterminating the population of woodland caribou and decimating song-birds home from their winter in the tropics. Seismic lines, which make a forest look like an engineered spider web, typically nee! d more than 100 years to fill in with trees again. Yet the government has no tight guidelines for reclaiming forest ruined by SAGD.
Government definitions of reclamation exhibit a genuine vagueness as well as a preference for mechanics over biology. According to Alberta's Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act, reclamation is mostly about "stabilization, contouring, maintenance, conditioning or reconstruction of the surface of the land." Operators of the open-pit mines must "conserve and reclaim disturbed land to an equivalent land capability." Doing so will earn them a certificate proving the deed done. Industry-friendly scientists talk about creating "a self-sustaining ecosystem with no long-term toxicity." Those reassured by such academic language might want to consider the actual pace of reclamation: after nearly 50 years of mining, the provincial government has certified only 104 hectares of forest, or 0.2 percent of the land dug up since 1963. Even industry admits that reclamation has moved more slowly than cold bitumen in a pipeline! .
The uncomfortable truth remains simply this: the rapid mining of the boreal forest has outpaced the science on the reclamation of wetlands, soil, and forest uplands by decades. No one has a handle on the real costs of reclamation. Security deposits remain laughably inadequate. And both Alberta and Canada have an appalling record of environmental negligence and disregard for taxpayers.
Reclamation in the tar sands now amounts to little more than putting lipstick on a corpse. Unless Alberta and Canada soon address the pace, effectiveness and transparency of reclamation, a rich forest will become an impoverished industrial park littered with salts, grass, polluted water and spindly trees. It might, with a bit of luck and some regular rainfall, eventually resemble a third-rate golf course in the Sudan.
Excerpted from Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent, to be published October 15 by Greystone Books / Douglas & McIntyre.