After our tour of Suncor and our fly over the Syncrude and Suncor mines, I delve a little into the “cost” of the industry to natural systems. It takes two tons of sand to make one barrel of bitumen. It requires 3.1 barrels of fresh water from the Athabasca River to make one barrel of bitumen. (Actually it takes even more water, but because a good percentage is recycled and used in the process again and again, 3.1 barrels of water to one barrel of bitumen is a fair assessment.) At least 80% of this “reclaimed water” ends up in the tailings ponds, or what investigative journalist Andrew Nikiforuk calls “the world’s largest impoundment of toxic waste.” To mine or steam out bitumen the industry also burns enough natural gas each day to heat six million homes. Every major multinational oil company has a claim in the Tar Sands expecting to get rich and Canada has a new destiny: to provide the United States with bitumen, a low quality high cost substitute for the so called “sweet oil” of the Middle East.
We met First Nations elders Celia and Ed Harpe and their family in Fort McKay on the day of a memorial service for their grandson, 32 year old Kristopher, who was killed in an industry accident. Celia has become known as an outspoken critic of the tar sands. She spoke of her former work as a community nurse and translator, and how she didn’t have words for asthma, cancer, much less cholangiocarcinoma, a rare and aggressive form of cancer that attacks the bile ducts, which was found in Fort Chipewyan. She said that people were dying young and unexpectedly of various cancers, leukemia and lupus. Celia has suffered skin lesions. Her husband Ed is currently diagnosed with lung cancer and Celia cares for him at home.
Celia talks about exposure to fumes, breathing toxic emissions and developing a fear of their own drinking water from the Athabasca River. What about the wild game her people have eaten for 11,000 years? The moose, the deer, the beaver, the muskrats all drink the water now proven to contain high concentrations of “carcinogenic polycyclic hydrocarbons and levels of heavy metals, arsenic, mercury, cadmium and selenium high enough to be dangerous to young children.” I see pictures of her sister’s grandbabies, twins, and I wonder what their lives will be like.
While I was there I could smell the fumes and I swear I could even see the particles of black in the air, but Maureen thought that perhaps what we could see was from forest fires, not from the industry. Celia tells stories that Maureen tries to capture with a recorder. She tells of her grandfather, Adam Boucher, whose uncle had signed the Treaty 8 with Queen Victoria giving up the ancestral land near Moose Lake in return for a reservation along the Athabasca. The people of Fort McKay were promised the right to hunt and fish there in perpetuity, “as long as the sun shines and the river flows and the hills don’t move.”
When I got home I found pictures of fish from the Athabasca filled with tumors and cancers and lesions. A whole way of living from the land, with the gifts of berries and bear, wolf and coyote has been destroyed. The river is no longer the bountiful source of life that nourished a people for generations. Instead, the only jobs are industry jobs. The industry estimates that less than 10% of the tar sands have been extracted, which makes me very fearful about the future. I see no sign of stopping. In fact, if the price gets right, there are other companies with permits just ready to jump in and extract as well!
James Hansen, the former director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and one of the most vocal scientists on climate change, wrote a New York Times editorial estimating that “the remaining reserves of tar sands contain twice the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by the entire global oil industry–IN ALL OF HUMAN HISTORY! ” I suspect we all will be paying the price and right soon.
picture of Celia with the Tar Sands poster by Aaron Huey
picture of fish with tumor Kelly/Radmanovich
picture of deformed fish John Ulan, Epic photography