You Can Help Heal the Tar Sands By Stopping the Keystone XL Pipeline

Tar Sands Healing Walk on highway in front of a Tar Sands "Upgrader." Photo Credit: Healing Walk
Over 500 people participated in the Tar Sands Healing Walk. Photo by Healing Walk
Last week, I was fortunate enough to join more than 500 people from the First Nations, Canada and the United States to walk 14 kilometers through Canada’s tar sands mining operations in the fourth annual Tar Sands Healing Walk. I had seen photos of the tar sands mines, photos that tried to capture the enormity of the projects, but they did little to prepare me for the absolute scale of destruction that I saw as we walked directly through a Syncrude tar sands operation.

Pristine boreal forest turned to barren landscape. Photo credit: Emma Pullman
Pristine boreal forest turned to barren landscape. Photo by Emma Pullman
It is a war zone. But instead of people fighting against other people, the oil companies are fighting a war on life itself. Pristine boreal forest is turned into miles and miles of barren wasteland. Toxic lakes that they call tailings ponds, where they store waste, cover the landscape. Air cannons surround these toxic lakes and shoot off loud booms to scare away any wildlife that may try to land. Those cannons, however, aren’t always successful. Thousands of birds have died as a result of landing in the toxic sludge that has replaced the forest, lakes and ponds that once covered northern Alberta.

In 2008, 1,600 ducks died after landing in the tarry goo and more recently, in 2010 over 550 ducks died after landing in the pond. Biologist Colleen Cassady St. Clair from the University of Alberta noted in her report about mass duck deaths that these fatal bird landings will only increase because of increased tar sands mining in a region that is home to more than a million migratory birds each year and an increase in severe storms caused by climate change. These lakes don’t contain water in any form we as know it. They are a mixture of clay, leftover bitumen, hydrocarbons with known carcinogens and toxic heavy metals. If tar sands expansion plans are realized, it will forever undermine the ecological health of 140,000 square kilometres of boreal forest, an area the size of Florida and 20 per cent of Alberta’s land base.

Two dead mallard ducks float in a bitumen mat in the Syncrude Aurora Tailings Pond in April 2008 near Ft. Mc Murray, Alberta. There was another mass death of ducks in the same area two years later. Photo by Todd Powell, Alberta Fish and Wildlife

During the walk, people covered their mouth with respiratory masks, handkerchiefs and shirts. For some people, the hydrocarbon fumes were so overwhelming they started vomiting. Some had to leave the walk to get away from the fumes. One First Nations elder silenced the crowd with her sobs of grief as she looked over destruction.

Two kids wear masks to protect them from the toxic fumes of the tar sands mining operation. Photo Credit - Healing Walk.
Two kids wear masks to protect them from the toxic fumes of the tar sands mining operation. Photo Credit – Healing Walk.
During the day, I wondered if President Obama saw for himself the absolute devastation of this extreme fossil fuel development, if he would still consider approving the Keystone XL Pipeline.

Each and every one of the politicians pushing for this pipeline should have to walk that 14 km Syncrude “Interpretive” Loop, breath the toxic air, see the toxic tailing lakes, look out at the barren wasteland and see for themselves what our addiction to dirty fuel is doing to wildlife, people and communities in the region.

Oil spills happen frequently around the tar sands operations. When I was there, a spill was discovered the same day as the Healing Walk on the Athabasca River. And although we had pictures of it, the government and industry denied there was one, saying they couldn’t find evidence of a spill. Fish in the river are deformed from the regular oil spills and the toxic chemicals from the tar sands.

TransCanada’s proposed Keystone XL pipeline is a needed piece of infrastructure for this industry to continue destroying habitat and poisoning water in Canada. Scientists know that tar sands development is a climate disaster. And industry says that it needs the Keystone XL Pipeline to undertake a major expansion of the tar sands mining operation.

Everyone one of us in the United States can help our Canadian allies in stopping the expansion of tar sands mining in Canada by telling President Obama to deny the Keystone XL Permit.

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Tell President Obama to reject the Keystone XL pipeline and protect the people, wildlife and habitat from further destruction.

For a full gallery of the images from the walk, you can go to the Healing Walk Flickr Page to see more amazing photographs. 

To watch a short video of the march, please click here or watch below.


Clayton Thomas-Muller, one of the main organizers, gathers the marchers. Photo copyright Alexis Bonogofsky
Clayton Thomas-Muller, one of the main organizers, gathers the marchers. Photo by Alexis Bonogofsky.