Alberta’s Top 10 Environmental Stories of 2013

Alberta has had another tough year when it comes to protecting the environment, but a year that has also shown that the resistance to environmental disasters is alive and well.

Here’s a recap of 10 of the biggest environmental stories to hit the province in 2013.

10. 2013 Tar Sands Healing Walk: The healing walk is a walk of healing and prayer through the tar sands led by First Nations communities directly affected by the megaproject. This year’s healing walk was the fourth annual event, which brought people from across Turtle Island to participate as well as prominent author Naomi Klein, and co-founder Bill McKibben.

In addition to being the largest walk to date, it was also blessed by a birth of a baby on the day of the walk. The baby was born in a teepee just after the stroke of midnight. If that’s not a sign of hope I don’t know what is.

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9. Families flee Peace River because of tar sands pollution: Six Peace River area families had to abandon their homes this year because of “odours and emissions” associated with in-situ tar sands projects in the region. Many families had already left due to the chronic air pollution that caused headaches, nausea, skin rashes, memory loss and other symptoms. The emissions also led to still borne births, deaths and sicknesses in livestock.

After years of delay, the Alberta government will finally conduct public hearings into the pollution.  Hopefully they are robust and independent enough to actually give these families the answers they deserve.

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8. Alberta: a Spill Filled Summer: It was another spill-filled summer in Alberta in 2013. The largest spill being a 15.4 million liter waste water spill in Zama City, Alberta that was likely left undetected for months. In October, the same company reported another 1.8 million liter spill.

Here is a recap of just five of the spills to hit Alberta this summer:

7: Defend Our Climate: With all the oil spills and tar sands pipelines being proposed it’s easy to get depressed. Luckily, every once in a while, an event comes along to show that the resistance movement is alive, well, and growing. Defend our climate, defend our communities was such an event. Led by the brain trust at the initiative saw hundreds of anti-tar sands pipeline protests take to the street from coast to coast to coast. Albertans participated with events in Edmonton and Calgary.

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6: Train Derailments: Following the horrific events of the Lac Megantic rail disaster, Alberta suffered a spate of rail incidents with the most prominent being in Calgary, Peers, and Gainford. The growing number of rail disasters shows that safety measures have failed to keep pace with the mass increase in oil transport and may become the ‘new normal’ if the Federal Government doesn’t due something to improve them.

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5: Coal Slurry: On Oct. 31st 670 million liters of coal waste poured into the Athabasca River in what is believed to be Canada’s largest ever coal slurry spill. The spill contained damaging compounds such as arsenic, mercury, cadmium, lead and manganese. The contaminants were found to exceed safety levels as far as 40 km downstream and remnants of the spill likely made it past Fort McMurray and perhaps as far away as Slave Lake.

The government Alberta didn’t issue an order to Coal Valley Resources and Sherritt International to clean-up the spill until three weeks after it happened.

4. Shell Jackpine Mine: One of this year’s most inexplicable decisions has to be the approval of Shell’s Jackpine Mine expansion. This project was approved even though the panel found it was "likely to cause significant adverse environmental effects," and likely violates several federal laws covering fisheries and species at risk, as well as treaty rights.

The decision prompted Canadian rock icon Neil Young into launching his own series of concerts to raise money for the Athabasca Chipewayan First Nation’s legal fight of the project.

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3. Alberta Pipeline Review: It’s very difficult to get the Redford government to do something it doesn’t want to do but that is exactly what a scrappy group of land owners did. And, supported by environmental and other groups, they didn’t do it just once but twice. Following a rash of pipeline spills in 2012, landowner groups pushed the Redford government into launching a pipeline safety review. When it was released in 2013, its inadequacies caused the groups to band together again and force Alberta’s Auditor General to pick-up the gauntlet and do his own independent investigation.

Three cheers for grassroots organizing at its best! 

2: Cold Lake CNRL spills: One of the biggest stories of the year has to be the three, still unexplained, CNRL tar sands spills. The unstoppable spills poured over 1.5 million liters of tar sands bitumen onto the Albertan landscape near Cold Lake for months, forcing the draining of a lake and causing the death of hundreds of birds and animals.

CNRL had a similar spill in 2009. The Alberta regulator was unable to explain the cause and was still investigating the 2009 spill when it allowed CNRL to continue its operations. The big question is whether Alberta’s energy regulator will make the same mistake this time. 

1: Alberta’s flood: a climate wake-up call: Number one on our list has to be the extreme floods that devastated southern Alberta this year. The floods were the worst in Canadian history when measured by the numbers of displaced people or property damage caused. In total, over 120,000 Albertans were forced to leave their homes, and the price tag is expected to go over the one billion dollar mark.

David McLaughlin, former head of the now-defunct National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy made the link between the growing climate crisis and the extreme flooding, “It’s a helluva warning, really, about unpredictable, extreme weather events and the need to prepare for it.” 

The climate crisis is upon us. Extreme weather events are becoming more and more frequent. The question is, are the Redford and Harper governments listening and will they actually do something about it?

A better Alberta is possible, in 2014 let’s make it real!