It’s a hideous, enormous, unimaginable sight. If you were to fly over the Canadian boreal forest, you’d come across an environmental manmade disaster that stretches for hundreds and hundreds of miles, and is large enough to be visible from space.
Bituminous sands, also known as tar sands or oil sands, are found naturally occurring in the Earth. They are mixtures of water, sand and clay that are saturated with extremely thick bitumen petroleum, and they have become commonly known as ‘tar’ sands due to the thick, tarry appearance, smell and color of the bitumen.
The Environmental Impact
Extracting tar sands requires vast amounts of energy, and is extremely carbon-intensive, significantly more so than conventional oil extraction. As the tar sand extraction industry expands, there are growing concerns that initial estimates of the emissions released through extraction processes have been grossly underestimated.
In order to create the huge mines required to extract tar sands, deforestation in the boreal forest in Canada is happening on a huge scale. The damage is not restricted to mining areas however, as roads are required to transport workers, machinery and finished products to mining sites. In addition, pipelines are required to provide gas to heat the dense bitumen into a transportable product, and vast amounts of water to help separate the product from the mixture.
Once the bitumen has been extracted, the material that is left behind is deposited in huge quantities in areas that are known as ‘tailings lakes’. Tailings are a toxic mix of water, sand, silt, clay, chemicals and hydrocarbons that are left to accumulate because there is no way or disposing of them. Heavy metals that are naturally present in tar sands, including arsenic and mercury, become concentrated in the tailings once the bitumen has been extracted.
According to the People & Planet report on tar sands, in 2009 tailings lakes covered an area of 130km2 and contained 720 million cubic liters of toxic waste. Some tailings lakes are also situated close to the Athabasca River, which would suffer irreparable ecological damage if the tailings waste flooded into the river. According to a report published in 2008, tailings lakes are already leaking at least 11 million liters per day of toxic water into the environment. High levels of dangerous toxins have been discovered in the Athabasca River downstream from extraction sites, and a study commissioned by the local health authority of Fort Chipewyan in 2007 found that the water was contaminated with high levels of arsenic, aluminum, chromium, cobalt, lead, phosphorous, selenium, copper, iron, titanium, and phenols. Fish living in the river have also been found containing high levels of mercury.
The Human Impact
Local people are also being impacted by the tar sands extraction industry. Indigenous communities living in Alberta have lost their lands and their communities do to mass mining projects. A series of treaties were signed in the late 19th century, including Alberta and the surrounding area, to guarantee Indigenous Peoples the ‘right to pursue their usual vocations of hunting, trapping and fishing throughout the tract’. Due to mass extraction processes, pipelines and tailings lakes, First Nation citizens are falling ill to ‘new’ diseases, and in some cases having to vacate their homes and give up their livelihoods. Many First Nation citizens have spoken out and written accounts detailing the impact of tar sands extraction on their lives.