Oil Sands Truth: Shut Down the Tar Sands

Sally Mauk: First Nations activists see changes since tar sands

Sally Mauk: First Nations activists see changes since tar sands

By SALLY MAUK for the Missoulian missoulian.com |
Friday, March 18, 2011

I was standing on South Reserve Street in Missoula in the wee hours of the morning recently to report on the transport of two enormous coke drum halves and their impressive entourage of trucks and law enforcement as they snaked past a few dozen chanting protesters.

Waiting for the drums to arrive, I thought about the conversation I had the week before with two Canadians who live in northern Alberta near the world's second-largest deposit of oil.

These ConocoPhillips drums were headed to Billings not Alberta, but they were blazing a path that ExxonMobil Corp. wants to follow with oversized loads of equipment headed to the Canadian tar sands.

The two First Nations activists were in Missoula for a screening of a Canadian Broadcasting Corp. documentary titled "Tipping Point: The Age of the Oil Sands." The film is about the environmental consequences of oil sands development.

George Poitras is a former chief of the Mikesew Cree First Nation, indigenous people who live in Fort Chipewyan, Alberta, and the Peace-Athasbascan river delta about 80 miles from the oil sands.

Francois Paulette is a former chief and leader of the Dene Nation, who lives along the Slave River about 200 miles downriver from the oil sands, in the province's northeastern corner. The two have seen a lot of environmental changes since industry began extracting oil from the tar sands in the mid-1960s - deformed fish, waterfowl coated with oil, receding shorelines.

The most alarming change has been the higher rate of cancer in their people.

"Soft tissue cancers, cancers of the bile," Poitras said, "which statistically you should find one case for every hundred thousand people. A recent cancer study found there are 30 percent higher rates of cancer in our community, including cholangiocarcinoma, which is linked to petroleum products."

Paulette grew up hunting and fishing ancestral lands near the pristine Wood Buffalo National Park. He mourns the changes.

"Twenty-five years ago, when I traveled the water, I still could drink the water from the river with a cup," said Paulette. "Today I cannot do that."

Oil industry officials dispute the cancer statistics, and say the water pollution has occurred naturally. It's hard at this point to know exactly what the environmental and health impacts of the tar sands development have been.

For years, the only monitoring of the impacts was done by industry-funded studies. In 2007, University of Alberta ecologist David Schindler and his team began an extensive independent study that confirmed many of the residents' fears. The study prompted Canada's federal government this past December to criticize the earlier monitoring as woefully inadequate, and to promise an independent government study that is still being developed.

The oil sands advisory panel's report to the Canadian Minister of Environment is stark in the panelists' impression of the tar sands.

"Our site visits had an indelible impact," state the authors of the December 2010 report. "It is hard to forget the sheer extent of landscape disruption, the coke piles and the ubiquitous dust." The report goes on to say the "overall environmental performance of the oil sands industry is not just an Alberta issue, but ... an international concern."

Meanwhile, the Alberta oil sands - an area about the size of Greece - have grown to be the single-largest source of oil for the United States, and a huge part of Canada's economy. One observer in the film describes the U.S. as "the junkie buying the drug Canada is selling."

Paulette and Poitras know you can't immediately shut down that drug supply, no matter what the potential environmental damage.

"Yeah, I don't think it's a question of turning off the oil tomorrow. It's a question of weaning or transitioning society away from oil," said Poitras. "And I think that's feasible and realistic."

In the wake of the Japanese nuclear disaster, political leaders point out there is no energy source that is free of risk. That statement offers little comfort to those evacuated from Fukushima, or to some of the residents of northern Alberta, who fear our appetite for energy is destroying their way of life and their health.

Sally Mauk is news director at KUFM, Montana Public Radio, in Missoula. Her column runs twice monthly in the Missoulian.

Copyright 2011 missoulian.com.

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