Prior to this action, I had been to the tar sands more than once. I knew the tar sands are the largest industrial project on the face of the earth. I knew the tar sands displace an area the size of Vancouver Island and will grow to consume an area the size of the state of Florida. I knew the tailings ponds are so huge that a few of them can already be seen from outer space. I knew all this, and I had seen the devastation from a blurring car window, and even from the side of the highway.
Everything changed when I was standing on a mountainous toxic dam in full protective gear, hearing my own breathing echo inside my gas mask, watching the whipping tailings sand skidding across my goggles. As I stared out at the pipe that I would climb, and stared past the end of the pipe to the lonely tailings pond, miles long, no end in sight, I realized for the first time the enormity of what we, as activists, and we, as Albertans, and even we, as Canadians and citizens of the world, have come up against.
Everything ahead of me was a result of pure, selfish greed, and a government unwilling to stand up for it's people.
Standing beside me was my fellow pipe blocker, Paul Baker, and our unwavering support person, Anna Gerrard. The pipe in front of us jutted out about 10 meters over top of the steaming tailings pond, with a shuddering 40 ft drop into the black toxic sludge and pile of jagged rocks. The sandy end of the tailings dam cliff fell away as Paul stepped near the edge. I can't speak for my friend Paul, but I know I was petrified at that point. I felt like saying "THAT'S THE PIPE???? I DIDN'T SIGN UP FOR THIS!!"
Then I remembered the 500 ducks that died in this very tailings pond without a safety system and a strong organization at their back, and I also remembered the people in Fort Chipewyan, dying of rare cancers and auto immune disease, with no hazmat suits to protect them and their children.
Behind me, Anna said "Look at the butterfly!" and I saw this flicker of purple and yellow, dancing on the wind, looking for shelter, and I'll never know if that little beacon of life found it.
The tar sands spew approximately 1.8 billion litres of tailings into the gargantuan ponds every single day. Syncrude has the largest tailings pond of any operation at it's Mildred Lake site, holding enough tailings to fill about 160 000 Olympic size swimming pools. The Aurora site tailings pond, the one we had occupied, was considered "small" at approximately 2.7km X 3km. They really should be called toxic tailings lakes. The dam that surrounded this tailings pond is second only to the Three Gorges Dam in its size. Dr. David Schindler, a prominent water ecologist was quoted saying, “If any of these tailings ponds ever burst the world would forever forget about the Exxon Valdez.”
Studies have already shown that the tailings dams leak naphthenic acids, trace metals, and ammonia into the surrounding groundwater. Enter the concerns of a nearby community, Fort Chipewyan, that has been fighting to protect the water from tar sands pollution. Government and industry continue to ignore the strong correlation between tar sands discharges into the water, the death and tumors on fish and wildlife who rely on the Athabasca river to survive, and also the rising rare cancer rates and deaths of members of downstream communities.
Some water facts:
- It takes 3-5 barrels of fresh water to get a single barrel of oil from the Tar Sands.
- Planned Tar Sands projects will increase water withdrawals more than 50% higher to 529 million m3 per year— more water than is used by the City of Toronto in a year.
- Tar sands’ water allocations accounts for 65% of the water withdrawals from the Athabasca River every year.
- 90% of the water withdrawn from the Athabasca river is never returned and ends up in the toxic tailings lakes
- At least 15 species of waterfowl have already been documented as having been killed on Syncrude Tar Sands tailings ponds along with an amazing 22 species of non-waterfowl.
It took Paul and I a good 15 or 20 minutes to shimmy with our large blocking devices to the end of the pipe. I kept my eyes focused directly ahead of me and when I looked down, I looked directly at where I was placing my hands on the pipe. I could hear the helicopter above us and the wind was picking up, whipping my bangs in my face. Paul kept looking back at me, holding up his thumb, and I would respond back with a an "I'm ok" thumbs up. Anna, our lifeline, was feeding rope out inch after inch. At the end of the pipe, I could feel the heat on my thighs and I was dripping with sweat. I couldn't imagine how hot Christine and Scott, the skull banner team, must be, decked out in full hazmat suits. I took a fleeting look to my right and saw them and Max, their support person, finishing the skull banner, its mouth wide over the other tailings pipe, vomiting ashen liquid into the depths of the pond. I took a final quick look behind me, carefully turning only my head and not my body, to see the giant banner that Jeannie and Dave had draped over the edge of the sandy dam.
It read: World's Dirtiest Oil-Stop the Tar Sands.
Every word is true.