Guest Commentary by Paul Steury, Assistant Professor of Environmental Education at Goshen College's Merry Lea Environmental Learning Center.
I recently visited “the most destructive project on earth,” a human made phenomenon called the Tar Sand. It is where Suncorp is mining out oil from the land in northern Alberta – the place that makes Canada the country from which we get the majority of our oil.
“Tar sands (also referred to as oil sands) are a combination of clay, sand, water, and bitumen, a heavy black viscous oil. Tar sands can be mined and processed to extract the oil-rich bitumen, which is then refined into oil. The bitumen in tar sands cannot be pumped from the ground in its natural state; instead tar sand deposits are mined, usually using strip mining or open pit techniques, or the oil is extracted by underground heating with additional upgrading.”
I went to Canada to study the socio-ecological affects of humans’ impact on this earth. I wanted to see first hand what I’ve been reading about in regards to environmental issues. To become a better educator it is good to see things first hand; I can then use the experience as a motivator and as an instrument to discuss stewardship, creation care and environmental ethics.
During the visit I did a flyover of a couple of the larger open pit mines where they scoop out the bitumen, load it in these massive trucks to move it closer to the refinery where they remove the toxins , “clean” the oil, and liquefy it by heating the soil concoction up because the bitumen is so thick it needs to be thinned. Then Syncrude, Suncorp and other mining companies can send hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil daily to an American refinery in Whiting, Indiana. That is one reason why Goshen citizens should be concerned about the Tar Sands. One of many.
Once the hot water/steam has been used to remove the bitumen from the soil they store their waste in something called tailing ponds which currently is 140 square kilometers/54 square miles of a toxic soup where they need to have loud alarms on the top of the pond to keep birds from landing in the water or they would never leave the pond since it is full of mercury, thallium, arsenic and oil residue.
The oil industry is just doing it’s job.Dr. John O’Connor, who is a family physician for Fort Chipewyan & Fort McKay First Nations people, told me that the industry is doing their job. Their job is to make money for their shareholders. It doesn’t matter how it does it since corporations do not have ethics. Dr. O’Connor lays the blame for the amount of cancer that is affecting the Fort Chipewyan and Fort McKay people on the Canadian government. He states that water quality is the main transmitter of carcinogens to the people living in northern Alberta. He also asserts that Environment Canada is not monitoring the water of the Athabasca River because they want to keep the findings secret since it would slow down production which would then slow down the economy.
“With concerns over tar sands development and environmental and health problems in the area, the Government of Alberta is under an international spotlight to address the problems. Violations of Constitutionally-protected Treaty rights pose a serious concern that can result in litigation, intervention from the Federal government, and investor insecurity.”
David Schindler of the University of Alberta found that levels of the pollutants cadmium, copper, lead, mercury, nickel, silver and zinc exceeded federal and provincial guidelines for the protection of aquatic life in melted snow or water collected near or downstream from oil sands mining. My host in Fort McMurray had a tiny house and wanted to see if a fellow member at her church would let me stay overnight. When Marg told the member that I was an environmental education professor she reprimanded her, “How dare you even think an environmentalist could stay at my house?” Her husband had worked for Suncorp for 40 years.
That interaction tells me there is a war going on in Fort McMurray – between industry and those who believe in the power of economics and technology – versus those who are concerned about the molestation of the land, the toxicity of the air and water, and the elevated cases of cancer especially in a First Nation community downstream.
What about the triple bottom line? Why can’t the two sides be combined?
I asked the economic director of the Fort McKay First Nation peoples how the mines affect the social equity and environmental quality? (Triple bottom line philosophy includes economic, societal, and environmental costs.) And all he could reply was that the First Nations people had great entrepreneurial opportunities with restoring and reclaiming the spoils of overburden (the soil that had the oil removed) like replanting trees and caring for the 20 buffalo Suncorp brought in to show that the reclamation areas are “safe”. He was not able to address the cancers that affecting the people he works for. We didn’t even approach the topic of respect and sacred places.
Even the First Nation people are caught in a bipolar dilemma.
Winfred GrandJambe, an elder from the Fort McKay community, told me about his new truck and house and the positives of having the Tar Sands in his northern Alberta community since it offers salaries in the hundreds of thousands for driving truck or bulldozers. But he also said “there are no more animals nearby and we have to go quite a ways for healing herbs.” This 71 year old had just hunted a bear the week before and a moose the week before that but he had to fly to another part of Alberta to reach hunting areas. Winfred’s community, which is surrounded by eight pit mines devoid of vegetation, has changed his environment – his home completely – forever.
So, what can I do?
I do drive a car and am in need of gasoline, which comes from petroleum. A lot of my wants are made of plastic: my computer, my sandals, my electric fan. What I must do is ride my bike more often. Walk downtown. I must think about the non-essential drives. I must talk to my mayor, council members, senators, congress people about alternatives. I must talk about increasing public transportation.
I must consume less.