Tar Sands for The Week (August 5, 2014).

Earlier this summer as part of work, oddly enough, dealing with the threat of climate change, I was in the Cariboo region of British Columbia. As a Vancouverite I perhaps get into this part of the land a little more often than most but it is still a rare, non-annual occurrence for myself. I won’t get into the specifics at the moment, but climate change and how it is exacerbated by bad forestry practices drew me to the areas around Williams Lake, north to Quesnel and past two separate roads that one could travel to see towns I have not in over a decade– Likely and Horsefly– original BC “Gold Rush” towns, now quite small in population.

I have been concerned with tar sands developments and their impact on both climate as well as forests for most of the last decade, and seeing these areas with a different lens that I have lived was interesting for me. These two issues were where my mind made immediate connections with very different developments than in Alberta alongside Alberta’s tar sands Gigaproject.


No longer.


It has been well documented that the Athabasca river is constantly being inundated with waste that is coming from the various “tailings ponds”– giant lakes of toxic, poisonous waste materials generated by tar sands mining all day, every day with no slow down even at midnight on December 25th. In fact, recent reports have gone further than ever before. Just one snippet from the link:


The report, Environmental and Human Health Implications of Athabasca Oil Sands, is the result of three years of research by two Alberta First Nations and University of Manitoba scientists, funded by the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation and the Mikisew Cree First Nation.


Of 94 study participants, 23 had cancer. “Cancer occurrence increased significantly with participant employment in the oilsands and with the increased consumption of traditional foods and locally caught fish,” said the report.

Sadly, none of this is new information, nor has yet another verification through research what the community of Fort Chip already knows: Tar sands effluents are killing people. This, based on leeching toxic crap: metals like mercury, arsenic, lead, cadmium… and the fun to say but deadly to ingest polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons [PAH’s]. With the obvious exceptions of many spills, or worse, complete criminal negligence in the form of a tailings pond missing an entire wall during construction (legally, to boot), the health impacts on people in the Athabasca region have been devastating without a tragedy involving the wholesale breaching of one of the tailings pond dykes.
Then this happened two days ago: In an area where mining had been ongoing for decades, a major breach of a tailings pond holding in waste material from gold and copper mining. The effect is already visibly catastrophic. The local populations are unable to drink water or go near waterways, you can forget about local fish populations, the impacts on animals are both immediate and longer term; Bears that rely on salmon runs in the next several weeks are going to be shit out of luck. They will die, as will the supposedly recovering salmon runs.
The spill has already officially damaged areas not just in the immediate environs, but as far as the Quesnel River– one of the major tributaries of the Fraser– but perhaps also the Fraser itself, the largest river west of the Rockies, major salmon spawn run and traditional food supply for dozens of first nations and others. This is only the beginning; spills of this nature simply don’t go away in ones lifetime. Though the land may– ultimately– be able to survive, the chaos, pain and destruction in the short term is similar to a small town in Nebraska “recovering” from multiple tornadoes.
The Imperial Metals pond was 4 kilometers wide. Constructed like an earthen dam, it has much in common with the tar sands tailings ponds. You know, those ones that are clearly visible from outer space. The waste water currently being held inside tailings waste lakes in Northern Alberta had long ago been mentioned by Dr David Schindler of the UofA, since retired, as leading to the likely destruction of all life in not just the Athabasca, but perhaps all the way through to the Mackenzie Delta, north of the Arctic Circle where the continent meets the Arctic Ocean. That’s not if all ponds breached, but just one of them.
And the largest one of them is well above 17 miles in circumference, not 4 kilometers across.
Insane though it should be seen as, larger forces backed by large capital inside certain foundation directed NGO groupings have started to publicly soften their language on tar sands. Even as climate atrocity has escalated and the serious, incoming danger of the positive feedback effect– where triggers in the the release of carbon lead to further triggers, and completely escape anthropocentric intervention (think of that like dynamite that starts an avalanche– human beginnings have to wait until natural ends), some have started to speak openly about it being “unrealistic” to demand the closure of tar sands overnight.
In tragedy, seized correctly, there is but the small solace of comfort given by opportunity to use the moment to address even larger concerns. This is just one such moment: It is impossible to clean up the tar sands ever, and the attempt to mitigate the destruction already laid waste to the Athabasca, Cold Lake, Peace River and Wabasca regions must be begun immediately.
It means recognizing that the tar sands are an abomination beyond climate, beyond starting points for a debate, and in the light of so much devastation that could happen if left for another day.
Our responsibility is not to speak of the likelihood of shutting down the tar sands tomorrow through mere words. It is to recognize the immediacy of need, that what is going to happen if it does not take place. Our job is to campaign and work to force out the truth.
The lies of this form of development flow as poison through the bloodstreams of water across vast swaths of the Cariboo Region. This must give us one thing– while seeking justice from the crime scene, also use it as further motivation to shut down the absolute monstrosity that is the scar upon scars in northern Alberta.
This is (one more reason) why we must immediately shut down the tar sands. It is how we honor the dead from this breach with the future struggle.