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A doctor visits the Tar Sands: An eyewitness account

By Farrah Khan

In October 2010 I travelled to the Alberta Tar Sands to visit the source of Canada’s dirty oil – an operation that has earned international disapproval for its greenhouse gas emissions, destruction of natural habitat, water contamination, and more.

Prior to my visit, I had read newspaper articles and environmental reports explaining the devastation.

I’d seen photographs and heard personal accounts of the oil sites and neighbouring communities impacted from their toxic emissions. I thought I had a pretty good idea of the extent of damage. I was wrong.

The destruction is far greater than I had imagined and the experience is more than visual, it’s visceral.

The polluted air is so thick, you can taste it, and looking at the horizon you see smoke stack after smoke stack after open-pit mine, where lush boreal forest once existed.

In addition to the obvious environmental catastrophe, the tar sands’ impact on human health is beginning to cause a stir. A recent study by Dr. David Schindler shows the “oil sands industry releases the 13 elements considered priority pollutants (PPE) under the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Water Act, via air and water, to the Athabasca River and its watershed.” The Athabasca River provides drinking water to down-stream communities in Fort Chipewyan and up to the Northwest Territories. This contamination is refuted by the oil industry, but when rare cancers begin to cluster in these regions (as was first reported by Dr. John O’Connor 4 years ago) and the fish in the river are becoming too toxic to eat, how long can industry continue to deny the impact?

I came away from this experience knowing that even though the complexities of shutting down the tar sands are many, this operation must stop. We need to wean ourselves off the oil dependence we’ve developed over the last century and switch to safer energy alternatives. This won’t happen overnight and it will require the involvement of government, industry, and individuals to make better decisions. If we continue on this path of destruction – adding to climate change and its health impacts – we won’t be around long enough to regret our poor judgment.

Update: In the recent Federal budget the Harper government announced they were gutting environmental assessment (EA) in Canada. They would do this through lay-offs of scientists, funding cuts to agencies involved in EA reviews, and by bringing in fixed time limits on EAs in order to speed-up approval of mega-pipeline projects (like the Northern Gateway) and Tar Sands development (which is already at a break-neck pace). The Sierra Club’s John Bennett put it best when he wrote:

“Environmental assessments need to be thorough, consultative and science-based. Creating hard-time limits and rushing the process compromises all these things. The changes will result in weaker environmental assessments and projects being approved without a full understanding of the impacts they will have.”

I thought the situation was terrible when I wrote the follow piece last November, but it’s clearly a lot worse now. I am truly worried.

Farrah Khan is a Campaigner for the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE).

Also in the Spring 2012 Issue of An Ounce

Published: May 14th, 2012