Canada’s tar sands: energy + devastation


Richard Moore

The Tar Sands, Downstream
Cancer, and the BC connection.
By Blair Redlin and Caelie Frampton

When 500 ducks died earlier this month after landing on a tar sands tailings pond, Canadians got a glimpse into how unfettered tar sands development is taking its toll.

Members of the Mikisew Cree and Athabasca Chipewyan First Nations living downstream from the massive industrial projects have been feeling the effects for a lot longer.

The backyard of the tiny community of Fort Chipewyan, Alberta contains the second largest reserve of petroleum in the world. The tar sands development is Canada’s fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions, the cause of rapid pollution of the Athabasca river basin, the reason for strip mining of thousands of square kilometres of boreal forest; a huge consumer of natural gas, and the likely cause of alarming rates of cancer in nearby Cree communities.

Bad water in Fort Chip

Lake Athabasca has been a source of drinking water and food for the First Nations living on its shores for centuries. Fort Chipewyan, on the southwest corner of the lake is home to 1,200 people. Currently, the community extracts its drinking water from the Athabasca which is located downstream from the major tar sands plants.

Residue from the oil sands, what the oil companies call “process water,” is being pumped into the river. Under provincial regulations, Suncor alone is allowed to discharge up to 150 kilograms each day of oil and grease into the Athabasca.

Visiting British Columbians were told first hand by Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation about the plague of unusual cancers that are afflicting the community of Fort Chipewyan. An independent scientific study by the Athabasca First Nation confirms the presence of elevated levels of arsenic and mercury in the water and wildlife. Twelve residents of the tiny community of Fort Chip have died so far in 2008 alone.

Despite alarm bells raised by local doctor John O’Connor in 2006, the federal and provincial governments have still not launched a baseline epidemiological study. The cumulative impact of this development is unknown. We were also told that the effects from Syncrude and Suncor were minimal when there were just the two plants in the area in the 1980’s. Now there are five up and running and the cumulative impacts are picking up. Chief Allan Adam asked: “What’s going to happen when all 21 (proposed plants) are up and running?”

Nor has there been any effort to move the water intake pipe for Fort Chipewyan to an inland lake. It was explained to us that it would be relatively easy and affordable to build a water pipe to the community from a nearby lake, but the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, which also includes the booming city of Fort McMurray, cannot keep up with infrastructure demands. Neither the Harper nor Stelmach governments have stepped forward to fulfill their responsibility to ensure safe drinking water for the Fort Chipewyan community.

Piped through BC?

Dealing with the drinking water is the minimum that needs to be done. The loss of traditional hunting and fishing areas for First Nations living along the Athabasca will require a long-term mitigation plan.

The experience of those in Fort Chipewyan should raise alarm for British Columbians who will soon have a special stake in the tar sands. The “northern energy corridor” announced by the Campbell government in this spring’s Throne Speech and the $4 billion Enbridge Gateway pipeline to bring tar sands oil to supertankers at an expanded Kitimat port mean tar sands development is a big deal for our province too.

The proposed Enbridge Gateway pipeline and ‘northern energy corridor” will take tar sands oil to supertankers at Kitimat. Those oil supertankers will then ply fragile coastal ecosystems in order to take raw bitumen to refineries in California or Asia. If the pipeline goes ahead, it will be an incentive for still more tar sands expansion, further affecting First Nations communities living near the development and exacerbating the already serious climate change impact.

What can you do?

British Columbians should press the federal government and local MPs to take urgent steps to resolve the cancer and water crisis facing Fort Chipewyan. The federal government should get started on a baseline health study and move quickly on a new, healthy, water supply for the Fort Chipewyan community.

British Columbians should sign on to the ‘No New Approvals’ campaign. All the treaty chiefs of Alberta and more than 60 other community organizations have signed onto the ‘no new approvals’ campaign. Unplanned and unfettered development of new tar sands facilities will only worsen already critical environmental, economic and health problems.

Get involved in stopping the Enbridge Gateway pipeline.

Related Tyee stories:

Caelie Frampton and Blair Redlin were part of a BC group brought together by the Council of Canadians that visited the tar sands in March 2008. The group included representatives from Check Your Head, the Institute for Citizen Journalism, the Canadian Union of Public Employees, Greenpeace Canada, the Stop TILMA Working Group, and the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.