Tar Sands Tranform Parts of Alberta to Toxic Waste Land

Felice Stadler filed this dispatch while on a tour of tar sands producing Alberta, Canada. National Wildlife Federation is working to slow production of tar sands fuels in Alberta. Tar sands are one of the dirtiest fuels in the world and wreak havoc on people and the environment.

Thursday, October 7, 2010 – Our final day in Fort McMurray

No amount of photos, conversations with advocates, or ground tours with industry, can prepare you for what you experience when you see Alberta’s tar sands fields from the air. The scale is mind-boggling.

Under a clear blue sky, we flew in a Cessna jet over open mine pits, toxic tailing ponds, black petroleum coke dumps, oily mud flats, and thick pollution plumes. The landscape, in every direction, was covered by an oily sheen that shimmered under the sun.

The amount of sludge blanketing the landscape is the equivalent of 6 billion barrels of toxic waste. There is enough water in the tailings ponds to flood Staten Island, NY. And every winter, particle air pollution from the smokestacks turns the snows black; and when it melts in the spring, it releases the equivalent of 5,000 barrels of oil into the Athabasca River.

All of the toxic ponds and mines we saw leech freely into the Athabasca River. In fact, the entire operations lie in an enormous flat river basin, and the pipes, roads, refineries, and pits are built in and around tributaries and wetlands. The Athabasca is brown and looks lifeless.

Hundreds and possibly thousands of ducks have been oiled and died in toxic tailings ponds in Alberta

In between the massive oil fields and ponds we see little notches of beauty, a reminder of what once was—stream oxbows snaking through intact forests. Each of these little oases provides welcome relief to what we’re seeing.

The oil companies have transformed Fort McMurray from a town of 11,000 30 years ago, to a work camp of nearly 100,000 people, the majority of whom travel great distances to work in the tar sands fields. The companies have developed perverse relationships with First Nations communities where trade-offs are negotiated to ensure peace and minimal resistance. They have managed to get a strong foothold in a province where the political leaders act like oil barrens, and the electorate is nearly silent. In the last provincial elections, only 11% voted.

When I hear stories from the First Nations community leaders, I am reminded of how I felt when my 9 year old son confided in me about his first encounter with a playground bully. How do I encourage my son to stand up to him—the Yard Ape ( as a bully is aptly named in a children’s book)—and to turn his fear into anger and strength? How do I encourage him to look for and lock arms with his friends and allies so that he doesn’t have to stand up to him alone? How do I tell him that just because he’s the shortest boy, doesn’t mean he’s the weakest and can be bullied?

Tonight, over dinner with staff from the Keepers of the Athabasca, I found myself asking those same questions. Here, the Yard Ape, unfortunately, is a club of every major oil company in the world. And the task of standing up to this bully is obviously much greater and much more daunting.

But the path to changing the power dynamic may not be all that different. Join forces, turn fear to anger, shift from resignation to hope, stand tall, and call for a different path forward. Loudly.

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Published: October 8, 2010