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Alberta’s Oil Sands: Nature vs. Industry – Part 1

A fish deformed by pollutants from Alberta's Oil Sands. A fish deformed by pollutants from Alberta's Oil Sands.

For many years, the oil sands in the Canadian province of Alberta were a dirty secret. But lately, the mammoth operation near the city of Fort McMurray has been grabbing headlines for its incredibly filthy process of extracting oil from the earth. The issue has attracted the attention of James Cameron, director of Titanic, The Terminator, and Avatar. When one of Hollywood’s most powerful figures gets involved, the world takes notice.

The oil sands, or tar sands as they are sometimes called, represent one of the biggest deposits of oil on earth. And the project is said to be worth about $1.7 trillion to Canada’s gross domestic product. But the oil sands are also one of the biggest causes of pollution in North America.

The toxic effect of the oil sands hits especially close to home for the residents of Fort Chipewyan, a town located on the banks of the Athabasca River downstream from the mines producing oil. For years the citizens in this small town along the Athabasca have been stricken with abnormally high rates of leukemia and other cancers, including rare strains. In fact, leukemia and lymphoma are three times higher than what would be statistically expected. Bile duct cancer, a disease associated with exposure to petroleum products, is seven times higher.

The problem is complicated even further by the fact that the vast majority of the residents of Fort Chipewyan are First Nations of Cree and Dene descent, which means their ancestral ties to the land go back millennia. That makes relocation more than a trifle. Indeed, for the people who view that land as their home, their religion, their culture, moving is not an option.

But one thing has already changed. The people of Fort Chipewyan are reluctant to use their traditional food and medicines for fear of contamination. The fish in the Athabasca River have deformities that indicate something foul is certainly afoot.

And yet, for decades, both the Alberta government and the industry extracting oil in northern Alberta denied that their mining practices contributed any pollution to the Athabasca River.

A recent study led by Dr. David Schindler from the University of Alberta discovered that the river is undeniably polluted. The science of the study and all the findings were transparent and made public, while the industry’s science is nebulous to say the least, and always done behind closed doors with minimal detail released to the public.

The study forced Canada’s federal government to step in and led to another damning study of the mining companies’ connection to the environment. Elizabeth Dowdeswell is the Chair of Oil Sands Advisory Panel and former executive director of the United Nations Environment Program. Her review of the oil industry’s practice of self-regulating and monitoring pollution concluded that things were in disarray.

“There is clearly a lack of coordination,” said Dowdeswell. “The activities [of the industry's scientists] were not always credible because they lacked scientific rigor.”

Now the Federal Government of Canada is demanding that things change in northern Alberta. Don Thompson, president of the Oil Sands Developers Group towed the company line for as long as he could, but after the feds got involved, has had to relent. Now Thompson says that an overhaul of the science and monitoring practices in the oil sands is upcoming.

So there’s some good news. But this is only part of the story. In Part 2 of RosebudMag.com’s exploration of Alberta’s oil sands, we’ll look at the broader environmental impact of the oil industry with an eye on Alberta specifically. Plus, we’ll look at how James Cameron is getting involved and the real life connection between his hit film Avatar and the situation in Fort Chipewyan, Fort McMurray, and Canada’s dirty oil business.


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Some activists are discouraging people from vacationing in Alberta in an attempt to sway the provincial government to clamp down on the oil sands
Last modified on Wednesday, 03 October 2012 18:54

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