In Canada's Tar Sands, a Dante's Hell Threatens People Nearby and Across the Globe
In Canada's western province of Alberta, Melina Laboucan-Massimo’s community—the Lubicon Lake Nation—has endured a withering toxic tar sands oil assault, an Armageddon against nature few Americans are fully aware of. Here in the once pristine sub-Arctic, tar sands mining operations level vast swaths of boreal forests near native lands, as pipelines burst and spew corrosive chemical-laced tar sands oil into rivers and lakes.
The Lubicon are used to living in harmony with nature. But tar sands mining has brought a deadly discordance to their environment. Melina has watched family and friends battle unheard of cancers and respiratory ailments; she's listened to local fishermen and hunters complain about unusual lesions and tumors festering in their catches and prey. She's reacted in disbelief as her government has sponsored airborne sharpshooters to gun down mighty Canadian wolf packs—a zero sum game that is killing one species to try to save another—as dwindling herds of caribou flee their disappearing forest homes and may be gone forever in the not so distant future.
For members of the Lubicon Lake Nation, it is a nightmare of Kafkaesque proportions. Their verdant land of abundant wildlife is metastasizing into pock-marketed battlefields of a thousand Verduns. Melina and other community leaders have not sat idly by as the environmental carnage unfolds around them. She has testified before Congress, spearheaded Greenpeace protest actions, and worked tirelessly to get the word out about the devastation in her community.
Watch Melina Laboucan-Massimo's story about the destruction of her native land in this short video, soon to be posted along with other updates to the Voices Against Tar Sands webpage.
According to one report, at least seven million gallons of oil has been spilled in Alberta since 2006—much of it tar sands oil—and there have been thousands of pipeline accidents since the 1990s.
Just in the past few months there have been several major pipeline spills in the province, including one spilled millions of gallons of crude near Melina’s community a little over a year ago. This is how Melina describes it when she along with others impacted by one of the largest tar sands spills in history during a rare opportunity to testify before Congress last March:
Last spring I returned home to where I was born to witness the aftermath of one of the largest oil spills in Alberta’s history. What I saw was a landscape forever changed by oil that had consumed a vast stretch of the traditional territory where my family had once hunted, trapped and picked berries and medicines for generations. Days before the federal or provincial government admitted that this had happened my family was sending me text messages telling me of headaches, burning eyes, nausea and dizziness asking me if I could find out more information as to if it was an oil spill and how big it might be…. It wasn’t until the day after the federal election that the information was released of the magnitude of the spill – 28, 000 barrels or 4.5 million litres of oil had soaked the land – this is 50 per cent larger than the tar sands oil spill in the Kalamazoo River in Michigan the year before. Soon afterward the story was swept under the carpet away from the eyes of the public yet it took until the end of the year for the official clean up to be done, but just like in Michigan we know that the land and water in that area will never be the same.
The poisons that infest these tar sands mining operations are some of the nastiest in the petrochemical world, including highly dangerous compounds like mercury, arsenic and lead. As they are dumped into rivers that flow toward the Arctic and are spewed into the cold north winds that deposit them far and wide across the remote region—thanks to powerful wind and water currents that already make it a natural sink for global toxic emissions.
A seminal study published in the National Academy of Sciences in 2010, led by renowned Alberta biologist David Schindler, found toxic pollutants from tar sands oil operations leaching into the Athabasca River, which flows north and feeds into the vast MacKenzie River Basin system that empties into the Arctic Ocean. The study poked holes in the Canadian government’s environmental monitoring system—long decried as inadequate and industry-biased by environmentalists and health activists—forcing the government to implement a new environmental monitoring plan this year.
Tar sands mining operations in Alberta. Photos: David Dodge/The Pembina Institute
But it’s not just the river of poisons being unleashed into the environment that concerns scientists. Huge areas of boreal forests are being transformed into open-pit mining operations, decimating critical carbon-storing forests and habitat and adding massive amounts of greenhouse gas emissions to the world’s increasingly polluted skies. Those losses are not being recovered and factored into the overall environmental impacts of tar sands mining, according to a paper Schindler and others published last year:
Claims by industry that they will “return the land we use – including reclaiming tailings ponds - to a sustainable landscape that is equal to or better than how we found it” (33) and that it “will be replanted with the same trees and plants and formed into habitat for the same species” (34) are clearly greenwashing.
The postmining landscape will support >65% less peatland. One consequence of this transformation is a dramatic loss of carbon storage and sequestration potential, the cost of which has not been factored into land-use decisions. To fairly evaluate the costs and benefits of oil sands mining in Alberta, impacts on natural capital and ecosystem services must be rigorously assessed.
For people like the Lubicon, it’s been a frustrating exercise, a battle against Big Oil and powerful political interests bent on maximizing profits . Already, the province of Alberta has the highest per capita green house emissions compared to any country in the world, and emissions from tar sands are estimated to be four times as energy-intensive as conventional oil production in the U.S. and Canada. That has permanently altered not only the landscape but the livelihoods of a people who for centuries lived in harmony with the land, a land that now is being altered from a bountiful paradise into Dante's Hell. This is how Melina described it to Congress:
As we see the landscape change, my father who is a Cree hunter has more and more difficulty in finding moose to feed our family and community. A couple of years ago, he found 3 tumours in the carcass of a moose while hunting in our traditional territory. Pristine forest, wetlands, bogs and fens are torn up and destroyed which will be replaced by acidic soil, end cap lakes and tree farms – a mere shadow of what once was. Currently we have toxic tailing ponds sitting on the land in northern Alberta that span over 170 square kilometers which is equivalent to 42,000 acres – this is not including the toxic waste that is produced by In Situ projects which are either injected back into the earth or taken away to sit in landfills. These tailing ponds contain a whole slew of toxic chemicals from arsenic, cyanide, mercury, lead, benzene, ammonia, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon and naphthenic acids some of which are known carcinogens. These tailing ponds are leeching into the Athabasca watershed. It has been estimated that every day over 11 million litres or almost 3 million gallons leeched into the watershed.
Stories like Melina's are heart-breaking, but they remain a hard sell to politicians who benefit from the profit-driven largess of Big Oil’s billions—profits that may doom the people and wildlife inhabiting an area the size of Florida to a poisonous demise. James Hansen, the director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, has famously said, it’s “game over” for the planet if the 170 billion barrels of tar sands oil estimated to be stored in Canada is developed and processed. His op-ed this year of the potential impacts reads like something out of a Stephen King novel:
Canada’s tar sands, deposits of sand saturated with bitumen, contain twice the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by global oil use in our entire history. If we were to fully exploit this new oil source, and continue to burn our conventional oil, gas and coal supplies, concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere eventually would reach levels higher than in the Pliocene era, more than 2.5 million years ago, when sea level was at least 50 feet higher than it is now. That level of heat-trapping gases would assure that the disintegration of the ice sheets would accelerate out of control. Sea levels would rise and destroy coastal cities. Global temperatures would become intolerable. Twenty to 50 percent of the planet’s species would be driven to extinction. Civilization would be at risk.
The bottom line is we are all at risk if tar sands mining operations poisoning First Nation lands in Canada continue to be developed unabated. As Melina has testified before Congress, it's more than a matter of life and death. “What kind of air, what kind of water will we be left with, so it’s a scary scenario to think about how much worse it could get,” she pleaded with members of the most powerful government on earth.
Unfortunately it likely will get worse, much worse. The Keystone pipeline—and a host of other tar sands pipelines on the drawing boards—are poised to bring rivers of poisonous bitumen crude to the U.S., where it's likely most of it will be refined and shipped to international consumers. The heat and violent storms plaguing the U.S. and the world will only get more deadly as mammoth deposits of dirty tar sands oil are processed, refined and burned to support the world’s ever-growing oil addiction.
Meanwhile, if nothing is done to rapidly transform our energy needs to more sustainable, renewable energy sources, the caribou, wolves and birds of the Alberta boreal forests will disappear into the Arctic night, never to return. It will be a sad ending to the environment and traditions the Lubicon people are fighting to protect, traditions that in the end will protect us all.