Dirty Legacy

Exposing the lax regulation and health risks of Alberta’s tar sands industry.

November 10, 2014

In northern Alberta last week, more than 100 migrating birds caught up in a dense fog decided to take shelter on the nearest lake—and instead came to the end of their journey.

When their avian ancestors flew over this region, it was covered by pristine boreal forest, a perfect habitat and breeding ground for hundreds of bird species. Now it’s a polluted hellscape, crisscrossed by toxic tailings ponds—gigantic pools of chemical byproducts left over from the process of extracting and refining the world’s dirtiest fuel from huge open-pit mines.

Photo: Aaron Huey

The migrating birds died, as have many thousands of others before them. The Alberta Energy Regulator reported 122 deaths last week, a total that made headlines across Canada—not because it was particularly shocking, but because it’s a reminder that despite years of concern and millions of dollars in fines, the tar sands mining companies are still killing wildlife. And when Canadian Natural Resources Limited, one of the giant mining operations responsible for the bird deaths, blamed it in part on “late migration,” it recalled Syncrude’s claim in 2008 that the deaths of more than 1,600 birds on one of its tailings ponds was “an act of God.”

I reported on Canada’s tar sands tailings ponds and their dirty legacy for the December issue of Outside magazine. In a story published online today, I found that the ponds remain largely unregulated, and the resulting human health concerns go all but ignored. The government doesn’t want to impede the economic development of this homegrown fuel, despite the fact that NASA’s James Hansen estimates that the remaining tar sands reserves contain twice the amount of carbon pollution emitted by the entire global oil industry—in all of human history.

The climate concerns of the tar sands have been well documented in the United States, which has resulted in an outpouring of opposition that has blocked approval of the Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline for six years. But the impacts on northern Alberta’s environment, and the First Nation communities that call it home, are less well known—though just as troubling.

Around the same time I was in northern Canada reporting this story, a video crew from onEarth visited many of the same places and talked to the same people. Their reports share some of the shocking sights and concerns of the communities living in the shadow of the world’s dirtiest oil fields.

One of the most consistent and powerful voices on the tar sands belongs to Dr. John O’Connor, who grew up in Ireland and is now director of health and human services at the Fort McKay First Nation. Despite his title, he’s pretty much a country doctor, shuttling from one village to the next along the polluted Athabasca River.

After he began diagnosing an unusually high number of cancer cases among the First Nations communities, O’Connor starting raising the alarm, only to see the government downplay or ignore his concerns. As I explain for Outside, O’Connor was even threatened with potentially career-ending disciplinary action for speaking out—until subsequent health studies substantiated his concerns.

Still, the government has so far failed to complete the comprehensive community health study O’Connor was promised.

In May, the United Nations called on the Canadian government to launch a special inquiry into the treatment of its First Nations. The U.N. said that more than half of all native people on government reserves face health risks due to contaminated drinking water. Environmental Defence, a Canadian environmental action group, has estimated that the tar sands tailings ponds are leaking a combined three million gallons of toxic sludge into the Athabasca River—every day.

“The native people are dying,” musician Neil Young, an Ontario native, declared at a press conference in Washington, D.C., organized earlier this year to bring attention to the health impacts of tar sands. “All the First Nations people up there are threatened.”

The title of my Outside piece is “The High Cost of Oil.” It’s a price we might all pay, if the tar sands are fully developed and our climate faces the consequences. But for now, the First Nations of northern Alberta are covering the costs for the rest of us. 

onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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