22 June 2009


June 22, 2009

The Alberta Tar Sands defies comprehension on many levels, starting with the fact that most people don’t even know of their existence. It is possibly the largest oil reserve in the world, and the largest environmental disaster. The impact is systemic, affecting every facet of the environment: air, earth, and water, and causing everything from global warming to mutations. The issue is all the more egregious because the authorities are ignoring the law and allowing this travesty. As is so often the case, the public is unaware of the colossal damage done to provide the calories we crave.

The Tar or Oil Sands are found in an area in Alberta, Canada, in which there is a large volume of bitumen, a tarry hydrocarbon, trapped in the earth. Extraction involves the strip mining of vast regions that are both valuable Boreal Forest habitat and precious water resources, rendering them desolate, lifeless moonscapes for eternity. The material extracted must then be reduced to the usable hydrocarbons, a process that uses tremendous amounts of water, energy, and oceans of toxic chemicals. The largest dam in the world was constructed just to retain this toxic waste from but one of the tar sand refineries. These unlined “impoundments” leach toxins into the groundwater, and since they are really just dikes constructed of earth, this type of construction tends to fail with disturbing regularity, which would release the sea of toxic sludge they contain into the Athabasca River. Toxicity is so high in these lakes that the wildlife coming into contact with them immediately dies; the oil companies hire people to remove the dead ducks floating in the goo. Of course, just sitting there, the vast reservoirs of toxic sludge are releasing benzene, a known human carcinogen and active global warming agent. When asked, the companies involved proclaim their intentions to remediate this waste, which sounds as believable as saying they will mop up the ocean.

Refining the tar sands is done in several stages at numerous facilities in Canada and the USA, each refinery a major polluter in its own right. The first new processing facilities to be built in the USA in 30 years are being built for tar sand “synthetic crude.”

The communities near the Tar Sands operations are primarily first nations people with limited political voice and little means to fight the industrial giants operating in their lands. Cancer rates in these communities are far above the norm, with rare cancers occurring repeatedly. Doctors who try to sound the alarm are ignored or ridiculed.

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