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Elizabeth Shope’s Blog

Tar sands, putting our waters in Jeopardy

Elizabeth Shope

Posted October 15, 2010

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Our Jeopardy! contestant has chosen the category of Environmental Disasters for $200: Depletion or contamination of the Athabasca River, the Ogallala Aquifer, and local water sources in the U.S. Gulf Coast region could occur because of this piece of infrastructure.

Ding!: What is the proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline?

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The proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline would bring up to 900,000 barrels per day of dirty tar sands oil – mainly in the form of "blended bitumen" – 2000 miles from Alberta, Canada to refineries in the U.S. Gulf Coast. Tar sands are a high-carbon fuel that causes environmental catastrophes globally – where it is extracted in Canada, where it is piped across rivers, farmland and aquifers, where it is refined, and across the world by increasing climate change pollution. Many of the devastating impacts of this fuel are due to the water pollution it causes.

Just a few weeks ago, James Cameron, Director of Avatar, visited the tar sands and met with local community leaders and environmental groups as well as industry and government officials. In his press conference on the final day of his tar sands fact-finding mission, he lamented the fact that downstream of the tar sands developments, the First Nations tribes living there “are afraid to drink the water and eat the fish and let the kids swim in the water.” Cameron grew up in Canada, swimming in rivers and enjoying the outdoors, and said “I can’t imagine being told by my mom that I can’t swim in the river.”  

Unfortunately, concern about swimming in, and eating fish and drinking from the Athabasca River is well founded. The tar sands developments have polluted the river, an abnormal number of fish in the river have tumors and deformities, communities downstream from the tar sands developments are experiencing elevated rates of cancer, the Peace-Athabasca Delta – an NRDC BioGem – is at risk, and meanwhile, the Canadian and Alberta governments are busy concealing these truths.

In June this year, the Canadian Federal government canceled an 18-month investigation into tar sands pollution in water and shredded the draft copies of the final report, without an adequate explanation of why.

However, this type of study is critical, as the University of Alberta’s David Schindler has found in a recent study that water concentrations of 13 poisoning elements – including lead, arsenic and mercury – are higher downstream from industrial tar sands activities than upstream. Further, despite claims to the contrary, these concentrations are not just due to natural leaching from the tar sands fields. If leaching had been the primary cause of the pollutants, high levels of these pollutants would have been found upstream from the industrial tar sands activities in the undeveloped tar sands areas -- not just downstream.

What isn’t understood, though, is if and how these pollution levels are affecting people and wildlife. Something fishy is going on, and it is important to get to the bottom of it because fish in the Athabasca River and Delta are being found with tumors, lesions and other deformities. In a letter to Prime Minister Harper, a group of residents of Fort Chipewayan and Fort McKay, fishers, scientists, and community and health leaders wrote that fishers have noted that the incidence and frequency of unhealthy fish within their catch has increased substantially over time. And, they continued, “It was reported that of the 27 whitefish, burbot and northern pike collected, 7 had lesions, hemorrhages and/or crooked spines. Some had bulging eyes.”

Burbot from the Athabasca Delta.jpg

Burbot from the Athabasca Delta, collected by Robert Grandjambe Jr., May 2010. Photo credit: Kelly

Fish like this one above with the massive tumor… are being found in the beautiful, pristine-seeming Peace-Athabasca Delta.

Athabasca Delta greenery near Wood Buffalo National Park

Athabasca Delta greenery near Wood Buffalo National Park. Photo Credit: David Dodge, The Pembina Institute

Unhealthy fish are not just a problem for the fish. Communities such as Fort Chipewyan have in the past relied heavily on fishing for both subsistence and income, so being unable to eat the fish presents a serious impediment to their traditional ways of life. And, could there be a connection between the pollution in the river, the unhealthy fish, and the cancer levels in Fort Chip that are 30% higher than expected? For now, nobody can be sure, because instead of investigating the matter further upon finding elevated rates of cancer in their study, the Alberta Health Board issued a press release indicating that everything was just fine. This behavior sounds awfully similar to the Federal government shredding their water report.

But the tar sands problem doesn’t stop here.

As I mentioned, the Canadian company TransCanada wants to build the 900,000 bpd pipeline, Keystone XL, to take tar sands to refineries in the U.S. Gulf Coast. On its 2000 mile path from Alberta through Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and finally Texas, this pipeline would be built right over – and in some places in – the Ogallala Aquifer, which serves as the primary source of drinking water for millions of Americans and provides 30 percent of the nation’s ground water used for irrigation. TransCanada has already had three leaks from their Keystone Pipeline in the few months that it has been running, so who is to say that they are going to do any better with Keystone XL? A spill into the Ogallala Aquifer could have devastating water contamination effects. And in order to run the pipeline at capacity, along with the recently built Keystone and Alberta Clipper pipelines, massive expansions of the tar sands extraction in Canada would have to occur, further polluting the waters up there.

Keystone XL Map Updated small.JPG

Finally, the tar-like bitumen would need to be refined, which, due to its dirtiness and heaviness, requires additional extra carbon and water intensive “upgrading” equipment. Refining this extra dirty tar sands oil – which contains more sulfur, nitrogen and metals than the average conventional oil – causes more pollution than refining conventional oil. It would be refined in Gulf Coast communities such as Port Arthur, which is already labeled by the EPA as an environmental justice showcase community. It could stress and pollute water resources down there and, come on, does the Gulf really need any more pollution after the Deepwater disaster?

This travesty of tar sands development needs to end and the first step is saying no to the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. You can tell President Obama to say no. Let’s stop putting these waters in jeopardy.



This blog was published for Blog Action Day 2010, which has a focus on water.

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Dale C. AndersonOct 24 2010 11:00 AM

secy of state hillary clinton just made a speech out in san fran in which she was asked about the alberta clipper pipeline and she said that she supported it and did not foresee the obama(WORTHLESS) administration not supporting going through with or opposing the legislation. what is the point of voting for dems when they are only 2 steps removed from the "DRILL BABY DRLL" crowd? remember OBAMA was supporting offshore drilling as safer just 1 month before the bp fiasco! WE HAVE NO HOPE IN THE U.S.!! the only hope for a cleaner energy future lies in other countries around the world, this country is CONTROLLED BY OIL AND COAL!!! the U.S. deserves all the animosity it gets from around the world.

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