Tales from the Tar Sands

by Amanda Starbuck

August 10, 2009

Our Greenpeace Organizing Term students have just returned from their expedition north of the border to a place named Fort McMurray in Alberta, Canada. One of their reasons for traveling was to bear witness to the environmental destruction of this region.

Connor, who has been working with the students this semester, sent me his account. He writes:

The US gets more oil from Canada than any other country, if you havent heard, and more and more of it is coming from the largest industrial project in the world, probably the worlds largest environmental disaster site.

Now that it is obvious that peak oil is upon us, meaning that we have reached the peak of easy oil extraction, alternative forms of obtaining oil are becoming economically viable. One such form is the mining, filtering, upgrading and refining of Albertas tar sands into synthetic oil.

Getting oil from tar sands is environmental genocide. These deposits are located in three main chunks of Alberta, and are altogether the size of Florida. To get at the tar sands, the ancient boreal forest that naturally covers the landscape is completely leveled, and all of the land is dug up.

Let me emphasize that- a 10,000 year old forest ecosystem is rapidly being transformed into a desert. As the trees are cut and the soil dries, stored CO2 is released into the atmosphere, habitat for both animals and people is wiped away, and global climate change gets that much closer to the tipping point were desperately trying to avoid. The tar sands compounds the problem through an overwhelmingly intensive mining process that poisons everything for miles and miles around.

Recently, I went to the main site of tar sands mining operations, which as stated above takes place in the Fort McMurray area in the Athabasca river region. Along the way, I finally was able to see and appreciate the beauty of the boreal forest, a vast expanse of distinct, deep green conifers. From the road, I knew that there was no way for me to fully appreciate the seemingly endless miles of this gorgeous forest that spans the entire continent, but I got a taste, and it was delicious.

The flavor turned more than sour pretty suddenly. Eventually, the boreal disappears and the landscape turns gray and dead. Tailing ponds (the size of lakes), full of the industrys toxic chemicals, replace the trees. Scarecrows are placed along the edges, and propane cannons are constantly blasting in order to keep wildlife from venturing into these deadly lakes. The smell of pollution is overwhelming- I could feel an unsafe burn from the acrid air with every breath. A dirty haze covers the sky, billowing from smokestacks all along the landscape and invading the territory of clouds. Piles of black sulfur, discarded sand, and other desolate material is scattered as far as the eye can see. No more green boreal. This place has been completely transformed into something more barren than the moon. The tar sands have brought new meaning to the word rape.

Seeing this was more than I could stand, and I wish I could fully describe what it is like to stand there, in a place that is devoid of any feeling. It looks, smells and sounds like a war zone, with the constant blasting of propane, thick smog in the air, and dead landscape. All I could think was, I cant believe this used to be the boreal forest, and I cant believe that people could do this. It was a truly horrifying place to be; it made the bottom of my stomach drop out, and I dont know if I could have kept from crying even if I tried.

It is important for me to try to get this reality out there to people- I knew about the tar sands long before visiting it, saw the awful pictures, read the awful facts and got angry, but none of that could get the desperation of the situation across to me. My account wont have any sizeable fraction of the impact of actually seeing that deathly landscape, but I can at least try to add a more personal touch to the situation. Please check out a couple of the links and videos here and familiarize yourself with the problem. With a climate that is already spiraling out of control, the tar sands is the most disheartening thing to see for anyone trying to protect what is left of the planet as we know it.

You can go here to find out more and take action: Greenpeace Canada Tar Sands campaign

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