Tar Sands of Alberta

Protestors demonstrate outside the U.K. headquarters of BP in London on Sept. 1, 2009. Protestors earlier targeted the head office of a leading bank, demonstrating against the bank's investments in fossil-fuel projects, especially funding for the coal industry and tar-sands extraction in Canada. (Photo: Leon Neal/ AFP-Getty Images)

In the wake of the BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill calamity, another potential environmental disaster is already in the making in the Canadian western province of Alberta. The Paris-based monthly journal Le Monde Diplomatique took a hard look into the immense toxic cesspool that is the Alberta tar sands today.

According to the in-depth report, around the Athabasca lake region the cancer rate is becoming alarming: 30 percent above the Albertain provincial average. The culprit is suspected to be the toxic reservoirs where the effluence from the oil industry's operations is collected. The massive-scale extraction of "black oil," underway for years now, seeks to suck out the remaining 170 billion barrels beneath the Boreal forest, of which huge swaths are destroyed to get to the oil underneath. Massive quantities of freshwater are used to "steam out" the viscous petrol from the tar-like sands. The process turns the earth into toxic sludge and gives off vast amount of C02 gas.

The reporter, Emmanuel Raoul, spoke to locals (most of them Amerindian tribes) from nearby Fort Chipewyan, who told sordid stories of catching poisoned and deformed fish, often reeking with the stench of putrefied petroleum. Provincial and federal health officials have tended for some time to either deny or downplay the causal links between the tar sands' open-pit operations and the high incidence of cancer in the surrounding region. Raoul also found that doctors' concerns are often dismissed, despite the statistical evidence that indicates that there is an increased incidence of cancer near oil extraction.

Dr. Kevin Timoney was put in charge by the local community to examine toxicity levels in the environment. "One has to ask if the level of toxins in the air, water, the fish and the animals is high enough to have an impact on health," he said. However, health authorities maintain that the high content of toxic chemicals (also a byproduct of the extraction) exists in the region's river naturally.

This argument has been used before to defend the effects of extractive activity. The mining industry, for example, also uses vast amounts of water in the extraction process. In addition, mining carcinogenic chemicals (cyanide, arsenic, mercury, etc.) is used to separate the ore from the precious minerals that are dug up, then "leached." The waste from this method seeps into local rivers, lakes and streams. Similar effects have been observed in places like Brazil's Amazon, where river basins downstream from mining pits contain fish with abnormally high amounts of mercury, arsenic and other heavy metals linked to a whole host of serious health hazards.

Researchers and biologists (hired in some cases by the mining companies themselves) carry out independent studies to pacify the concerns of the local population. They often conclude that the rising levels of these toxins in the water supply are mainly due to a natural occurrence and has little or no connection to the oil or mining operations nearby.

Syncrude Canada Ltd. has six open-pit oil operations with huge earth-moving equipment humming around the town of Fort Mckay in the Athabasca area. The surrounding region (once pristine marshes for water fowl) is stripped of its forests and vegetation. It looks like an almost lunar landscape, a barren wasteland, a dead zone. According to the Le Monde Diplomatique, artificial lakes have become vast bird and duck cemeteries or gargantuan receptacles filled with putrid gases. The tar-oil processing factories nearby relentlessly spew out sulfurous gases and highly pollutant emissions, which the local population breathes. Another much bigger oil giant, Shell, is preparing to dig for oil in the tar sands sector.

Alberta is Prime Minister Stephen Harper's political territory. He was elected in Calgary, the city that is home to Canadian and foreign oil company majors. The cozy, well-established links between Harper's government and the oil industry are illustrated by whom he hires within his inner circle. Harper has been known to appoint former oil company employees to important posts within his cabinet. One case is John Weissenberger, an ex-employee of Husky Oil in Alberta and his former campaign adviser. Weissenberger took up an important position, essentially, as chief climate-change denier

So the question remains: Who will clean up this colossal mess?

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