Canada’s Toxic Tar Sands: The Most Destructive Project on Earth

Because of their sheer scale, all Canadians are affected by the Tar Sands, no matter where they live.
If you live downstream, your water is being polluted and your fish and wildlife may be dangerous to eat. If you live in Saskatchewan you are a victim of acid rain. If you live in BC, “supertankers” may soon be plying your shoreline carrying Tar Sands oil to Asia. If you live in Ontario, you are exposed to harmful emissions from the refining of Tar Sands Oil. And the impacts do not stop at Canada’s border – US refineries are re-tooling to handle the dirty oil from Alberta.
With the Tar Sands, Canada has become the world’s dirty energy superpower.
Environmental Defence’s report highlights the environmental and human health effects of the Tar Sands. And, outlines what the federal government should do to clean it up.
Download (external - login to view)the full report

The Saskatchewan Environmental Society has called on the Minister of Environment to undertake a Strategic Regional Environmental Assessment of the watersheds of the Clearwater, Descharmes, Firebag and Richardson Rivers in north western Saskatchewan before any further permits are issued for exploratory drilling or seismic work related to oil sand development.

A major oil sands project would have very serious impacts on water and air quality in northwestern Saskatchewan, while also significantly increasing Saskatchewan's greenhouse gas emissions. It makes sense to assess the capacity of the local and regional environment to sustain such projects before continuing to issue more and more exploration permits. It concerns the Society that no publicly accessible ecological baseline study of the region has been carried out.

While we have been told that an environmental impact assessment will be required if a development proposal is advanced, it is reasonable to assume that the capacity of this landscape to absorb the impact of such development should be carefully examined before the companies are encouraged to invest heavily in exploratory work. Rather than just looking at the impact on a project-by-project basis, a Strategic Regional Environmental Assessment would examine the potential impacts of the whole policy and program to conduct oil sands development in this region.

Even exploratory work, when conducted on a large scale, requires a thorough environmental assessment before being permitted. This has not taken place. The exploratory work now being undertaken in the pristine northwest region can have significant, long-term impacts. It appears inevitable that wildlife habitat is already being disrupted by thousands of kilometres of seismic line-cutting that is criss-crossing an area where regeneration is slow, opening up human access corridors throughout the region. Already hundreds of exploratory wells are being drilled and heavy motorized traffic is being introduced into previously quiet, natural environments. Saskatchewan does not want to repeat Alberta's mistakes when it comes to the destruction of the natural environment from oil sands development. Carefully assessment of the capacity of the natural environment to sustain such development is a good first step to avoiding serious damage.
It's not just about 500 dead ducks

Posted: May 12, 2008

Gillian Steward, May 11, 2008, Toronto Star -- Who could have known that a flock of ducks on its way home for the summer was fated to become a powerful symbol of all that is wrong with Alberta's most vital industrial project – the tar sands?
As much of the world knows by now, about 500 of them died when they set down on a lake of oily goo, usually referred to by the petroleum industry and the government as a tailing pond – a much more neutral phrase than 22 square kilometres of toxic sludge produced when oil is extracted from the sandy soil.
And that's just one tailing pond. There are almost a dozen and they cover about 55 square kilometres. Within 10 years, when all the planned tar sands projects are up and running, they will cover three times that area.
At about the same time the ducks were dying, Alberta Deputy Premier Ron Stevens was winging his way home from a trip to Washington where he went to great pains to convince U.S. politicians that oil extracted from the sands is not "dirty."
That's how it's being described stateside by those alarmed about the environmental impact of these massive projects. This matters a lot to the powers that be in Alberta because if enough Americans think our oil is dirty, they may stop importing it. Thanks to the unfortunate ducks, Stevens was left with a lot more than egg on his face.
It's a story line that could have come out of a Robert Redford movie: Eager Canadian politician goes to Washington to spin a story about his government's strict environmental policies; as the senators and members of Congress consider what he has to say, photos of ducks drowning in poisonous muck pop up on CNN and the Internet.
The tailing pond belongs to Syncrude – a joint venture of Imperial Oil, Petro-Canada and others, and the world's largest tar sands operation. The poisonous pond was built in 1973 and, according to Syncrude, the ducks died because a system of small cannons designed to issue warning shots was not running due to recent snowstorms.
This sounds like a reasonable explanation until one asks why on earth hugely profitable corporations and a wealthy provincial government couldn't come up with something better than a contraption that is no more than a complex scarecrow. And that begets an even bigger question: Why have these toxic lakes been allowed to fester for so long?
They line both sides of the Athabasca River, which flows into the Mackenzie Basin. Many are already leaking and creating their own tainted wetlands. Minnows dropped into the ponds die within 96 hours. Residents of Fort Chipewyan, which lies downstream from the tar sands projects, have long complained about the weird-looking fish they pull out of the water and the high incidence of certain cancers in their community.
Talk about canaries in a coal mine. The fate of the 500 ducks is symbolic of much deeper problems when it comes to the environmental consequences of Canada's largest industrial project.
Unfortunately, most of the CEOs and politicians, including Prime Minister Stephen Harper who called the death of the ducks a "tragedy," seem more concerned about polishing up their tarnished reputations than actually doing anything to lessen or limit the environmental quagmire that caused the deaths of the hapless ducks in the first place.
Premier Ed Stelmach has called for an investigation. But don't hold your breath – it will likely focus on why the scarecrow didn't work rather than what lies beneath it.
Gillian Steward is a Calgary writer and journalist, and former managing editor of the Calgary Herald. Her column appears every other week.

Looks like a bloody Martian landscape
Attachment: Letter to Minister Heppner

Hon. Nancy Heppner
Minister of Environment
Rm 315 Legislative Building
2405 Legislative Drive
Regina SK S4S 0B3 18 March 2008

Dear Minister,

Re: Oil Sands exploratory work in north western Saskatchewan

The exploratory work currently being undertaken in the Clearwater River region of north western Saskatchewan has the potential to seriously impact the natural ecosystem of this pristine region. It appears likely that wildlife habitat is being disrupted by thousands of kilometers of seismic line-cutting in an environment where regeneration is slow, opening up human access corridors throughout the area. Hundreds of exploratory wells are being drilled and motorized traffic is being introduced into previously quiet, natural environments.

It concerns us that no publicly accessible ecological baseline study has been carried out, and that the cumulative impact of the exploration work has not been publicly reviewed before hundreds of drilling permits have been issued. While we have been assured that an environmental impact assessment will be required if a development proposal is advanced, it is reasonable to assume that the capacity of this landscape to absorb the impact of such development should be examined before companies are encouraged to invest heavily in exploratory work that in itself has the potential to cause serious environmental impact.

The Saskatchewan Environmental Society is thus asking that you immediately launch a Strategic Regional Environmental Assessment of the area that is regarded as potential oil sand country. This would include the watersheds of the Clearwater, Firebag, Richardson and Descharmes Rivers. Further, we recommend that no further permits for exploratory drilling or seismic work be issued until such an Assessment is completed.

Yours truly,

Ann Coxworth
Program Coordinator

Saskatchewan Environmental Society
Box 1372 STN Main
Saskatoon SK S7K 3N9
Phone: (306)665-1915
Fax: (306)665-2128
e-mail: (external - login to view)

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Alberta Tar Sands Cause Acid Rain

  • <LI class="first taxonomy_term_13">Alberta (& Saskatchewan) Tar Sands <LI class=taxonomy_term_18>Animals (external - login to view) <LI class=taxonomy_term_7>Climate Change / Emissions (external - login to view) <LI class=taxonomy_term_6>Health (external - login to view) <LI class=taxonomy_term_17>Land (external - login to view)
  • Water
Alta. oilsands cause acid rain
Report issued by environmental group warns of 'most destructive project on Earth'
Matthew Kruchak and James Wood, The StarPhoenix
Published: Saturday, February 16, 2008
Acid rain caused by Alberta oilsands production is pouring down on Saskatchewan and if governments don't take note, any oilsands development in this province will contribute to the "most destructive project on Earth," the Environmental Defence organization warns.
A report released Friday by the group says 70 per cent of the sulphur entering Alberta's air ends up in Saskatchewan. Acid rain is produced by the interaction between water, sulphur and nitrogen oxides.
"Acid rain causes damage and death to the ecosystem and also human health," said Christopher Hatch, a climate change campaigner with Environmental Defence. "People in Saskatchewan should be very concerned that neither the federal nor provincial governments are getting to the bottom of this.
"So what is it that they don't want people to know? There's obviously a problem -- any layperson can tell that. Why are they not funding studies to ensure human health?"
The report, titled Canada's Toxic Tar Sands: The Most Destructive Project on Earth, outlines the environmental and human health effects of the oilsands and offers the federal government solutions, Hatch said.
"It's a toxic nightmare -- it really is," he said. "To fly over the Alberta oilsands as it is -- and it's only just beginning -- it's a toxic moonscape."
The group is calling on the federal government to step in and force the cleanup or work with the Alberta government to address environmental issues, he said.
In the past 12 years, at a Saskatchewan site (which was not identified) 200 kilometres downwind from the oilsands, the mean level of acid in precipitation had increased, the report stated, with measurements going from pH 5.3 to 4.1. Normal rainfall has a pH of 5.6.
Saskatchewan Environment ran 10 monitoring stations across the oilsands in the northwest of the province and found a buildup of nitrogen from Alberta, the report stated in a section called Raining Acid on Saskatchewan.
"On the toxic front, it's really a looming human health disaster," Hatch said.
Environment Minster Nancy Heppner had little to say about the report Friday.
Asked about the environmental impact of the Alberta oilsands projects, Heppner said she didn't have any details.
"I've heard things, that water's being contaminated and those sorts of things. I don't have any specifics. I haven't seen the report you are talking about today and obviously there's more information we'll be looking at to make sure that if there were mistakes made on the Alberta side that we won't be making those here," Heppner told reporters at the legislature just before leaving for a climate change conference in Australia.
However, she said the government is concerned about acid rain from the oilsands.
"I understand there's some concern and we've met with some people, some residents of northern Saskatchewan, who are concerned about acidification of our lakes and that's something we're going to look at," said Heppner.
NDP environment critic Sandra Morin questioned Heppner's lack of knowledge about the report.
Morin said "she had no reason to doubt" the report's characterization of the oilsands as "the most destructive project on Earth."
"It's incredibly distressing that 70 per cent of the acid rain, the contamination, is going to be affecting Saskatchewan. Clearly, with the development happening there and 70 per cent of those emissions affecting Saskatchewan people, one has to be concerned about the further development of the oilsands in Alberta, which is supposed to triple in the next 10 years, not to mention the further development of the oilsands projects that are happening in Saskatchewan."
The Saskatchewan Party government is supportive of oilsands projects in this province, but Heppner said the environment won't be sacrificed.
"We are committed as a government going forward with development to make sure the environment is protected. There are environmental impact assessments that are done for projects and that will certainly be the case going forward. We do not want our environment to be destroyed while we develop our province," she said.
Officials from the Ministry of Environment were unavailable for comment Friday.
A representative from Oilsands Quest, a company leading the development of the oilsands industry in Saskatchewan, was also unavailable for comment Friday. (external - login to view)

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