April 30, 2008

[Equation] Lakes of Tar = Death

[Photo caption: View of Syncrude plant and tailing "pond" in Northern Alberta. Not long ago this land was covered in ancient forests that acted as an important lung for the planet]

It's as simple as adding things together. What do you expect to occur when you bulldoze miles upon miles of previously untouched forest, then dig out a series of gigantic holes, and fill them with toxic, sludgy, tar-filled waste-water? To top it off, these massive carcinogenic lakes (which are visible from space) happen to be located within the migratory path of many species of bird and other wildlife, and just happen to be a couple of kilometers upstream from human-inhabited areas.

If the answer isn't obvious to you yet, you may want to revisit your basic arithmetic skills. The answer is "death". You get "death" when you build man-made lakes of carcinogenic sludge. It's that simple.

Hence my lack of surprise when I woke up to today's news. A flock of some 500 ducks, en route to its summer habitat, was flying by Fort McMurray, when it located a series of lakes - which seemed perfect for a rest. These were not the first birds to think it might make a good rest stop, but they were the first (at least that we know of) to have NOT been properly warned ahead of time that these were not real lakes of fresh water, but rather that they were the carcinogenic lakes of tar-water mentioned above. In fact, most days there are birds of various species trying to make a stop in the famous "tailings ponds" of Northern Alberta - the liquid waste product of copious amounts of water used to produce crude oil - but - the companies which produce these toxic seas employ a number of sophisticated tactics to convince birds to stay away from them. They use scarecrows, for example, and large air canons (which are loud enough to scare the shit out of any animal).

For some reason, however, these ducks were not given the air canon warnings, nor did the scarecrows seem to do their job. So all 500 of them landed in one of Syncrude's tailings ponds.

Well they're dead now - at least the majority of them are. If any survived, they are now covered in sticky tar and are no longer capable of using their wings. And if they manage to get rehabilitated by rescue workers, maybe - just maybe - they will continue to thrive, only to get struck with cancer at a later date, having been exposed to extremely dangerous contaminants... just like the people of Fort Chipewyan.

What's that? Are you saying the people of Fort Chipewyan have been struck with cancer, having been exposed to dangerous contaminants from the oil sands?

YES. THE PEOPLE OF FORT CHIPEWYAN, and other communities located on the Athabasca River, downstream from Fort McMurray, ARE DYING FROM CANCER AT ABNORMALLY HIGH RATES!!!

This is why a Doctor by the name of John O'Connor, some 7 years ago, reported with grave concern that a number of people had acquired cholangiocarcinoma - a rare form of cancer that usually impacts less than 1 in 100,000 people. Yet here were up to 5 people with it, in a population of 1200!!! Medically speaking, this is extreme cause for alarm. Yet as many of you reading this will know, O'Connor raised the issue publicly, and was then fired by Health Canada for causing unnecessary public panic.

Now, I have not been to Fort Chip myself, but I was at an event regarding the Tar Sands here in Edmonton that was attended by a number of Fort Chip residents. I WILL BE FOREVER HAUNTED by the appeal by one of them - a woman in her 40s: Addressing the audience with tears pouring down her cheeks, she PLEADED with us to do whatever we could to stop the death of her community. She listed case after case, person after person, with the familiarity of their first names - her friends and family members who had either died or will soon die of cancer. Her sadness turned to anger... "this is not normal" she screamed at us, referring to attempts by our provincial and federal governments to shrug off the public health disaster as a typical health issue that is unrelated to the tar sands operations.

The extremely powerful PR assault led by the oil industry and the provincial and federal government is winning. They have managed to block the story of genocide in Fort Chip from filtering into the everyday car driver's head. They have somehow managed to convince us that slowing tar sands production will mean economic collapse - despite the clear warnings by economists that climate change will more likely wreak global economic havoc. And perhaps this is what makes the story of the ducks all the more bitter for me. Part of the story is that this "duck disaster" comes just as Stelmach's PR squad is returning from an international propaganda tour - the goal of which was to convince elites around the world that the tar sands operations are sophisticated, GREEN, oil-exploitation procedures - where EVERY CARE is taken to ensure the environmental, climatological and ecological sustainability of the land. Not only do the deaths of these birds prove the sheer absurdity of Stelmach's lies, they also demonstrate the simplicity of the equation of death involved in the tar sands gigaproject. We must hold Stelmach accountable for his crimes. Let us never forget the deaths that have been a direct result of this, either animal or human!

After hearing of those poor dead ducks, a friend of mine asked in desperation - "what will it take for the government to realize it has to stop the tar sands"? Our country is so racist towards first nations people that it seems the death of a native community will not halt tar sands expansion. I highly doubt the bird story will do anything either, other than arouse more temporary anger. But within the increased production intended by the Stelmach Conservatives lies their own demise. This provincial government, already the greatest emitter of carbon emissions in the country (thanks to oil production), has already begun to drive itself into a dark tunnel of history. Alberta oil is so dirty that even American politicians are threatening to stop buying it, given the horrendous environmental and climactic impacts of converting bitumen into crude oil (California already has a law to forbid the buying of Alberta oil). So to answer the question "what will it take"? I think it will take one of two things: Either a) it will take unprecedented amounts of environmental destruction and climactic trauma for to the point that it's no longer worth it to feed gas into their SUV so they can drive to the store to buy their things - because the things won't be there anymore (or at least they'll be totally unafordable). In this scenario it will take economic collapse - which already seems pending, or b) it will take smart citizens to foresee this industrial collapse before it happens, and start acting NOW to reduce the amount of harm we will face as a civilization from global warming and the economic meltdown it will throw upon the world. Which doomsday scenario do you choose?


  1. This just in: The Environment Minister in Alberta is claiming a "success" in trying to rescue the 500 ducks. It turns out that three (3!) ducks were airlifted to Edmonton. They are being sent to a wildlife rehabilitation center, where the director explained that they will likely never fly again. Some success.

  2. i hear it's gotten much worse when the Department of the Environment realized that ducks fly and that really, the number of affected animals (not to mention local residents) is impossible to estimate considering that Fort Mac happens to be on the migratory route north.

    Did you know that Calgary is going overseas to recruit police officers? they were able to get many from the UK and the Suddeutsche Zeitung reports that over the next few years they are trying to expand their numbers by 1500... i think that these officers coming from places like Manchester are going to see the same kind of economic decline due the the end of a resource based economy as they did there over the past 30 years.

    Alberta is embarrassing.

    what do you think about the world food predicament in which the right to drive SUVs will be overriding the right to eat in poorer countries? that Lockean notion of the right to happiness as long as it doesn't infringe on others is becoming increasingly ironic, considering it it the backbone of this neoliberal thought.

  3. Thanks for your thoughts DIO,

    For some reason this provincial government is trying to push through as much growth as possible in a very short window of time. Someone needs to put a friggin' leash on tuggin' Eddie. Their growth strategy reminds me of a dog I walked for a family that let me stay at their home in Paris. This dog was just dying to go somewhere, he was pulling and pulling on his leash, but he didn't have any apparent destination... he just wanted to go forward and go there fast. So the damn dog basically dragged me down the street while I yanked back on his leash. It was a tug of war, and this dog was so determined to go nowhere fast that he didn't seem to realize that he was choking himself to death in the process. That's the Alberta boom in a nutshell - a slow self-inflicted death by asphyxiation.

    Don't even get me started on biofuels and food crops being diverted to make biofuels... it's far too depressing. You can check out the discussion about this on the Edmonton Social Planning Council's message board (which you should contribute to as well).

  4. a look at norway in comparison is also interesting, or even venezuela.