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An Ounce Book Review

Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a ContinentBy Andrew Nikiforuk
Publisher: Greystone Books
Price: $20.00 (Paperback)
ISBN: 978-1-55365-407-0
Pages: 214

For the past 20 years, Andrew Nikiforuk has written about energy, economics and agriculture for a wide-variety of publications. But his latest work, Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent, may be his most important contribution so far. In a cutting, witty and easily readable style, Nikiforuk reveals the true costs of Alberta’s Tar Sands, and the implications for Canada and our democracy.

Nikiforuk makes the case that the Tar Sands, which underlie approximately 150,000 square kilometres of boreal forest (an area the size of Florida), are one of the biggest social and ecological threats facing Alberta, Canada, North America – and the world. He shows the reader how Tar Sands development is not only fuelling climate change, destroying forests, killing river systems and creating so much toxic waste that even the oil industry is alarmed, but also how it is hurting our democracy, threatening our future – and causing cancer.

Nikiforuk tells the disturbing story of a family physician, Dr. John O’Connor who discovered high rates of cancer in Fort Chipewyan, a small community downstream of the Tar Sands. Cholangiocarcinoma, for example, which is a rare cancer of the bile duct that usually strikes just one in 100,000 people. Dr. O’Connor discovered three cases in just three years in this small community, and was understandably alarmed by his finding. Fort Chipewyan’s population is 1200.

A generation ago, Lake Athabasca was clear and clean enough that Fort Chipewyan residents drew their drinking water straight from it, and thought nothing about dipping a cup over the side of a canoe during hunting trips. Not any more. Forty years of Tar Sands development has created dozens of toxic waste tailing ‘ponds’ – some so big they look like lakes from space – on both sides of the Athabasca River – the main tributary of Lake Athabasca.

Experts don’t know a lot about the rare cancer, cholangiocarcinoma, but it is suspected by some in the science community that it is probably caused by exposure to polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and arsenic.

PAHs are a main ingredient of the sludge in the leaking toxic tailing ponds, along with phenols, benzene, cyanide and heavy metals. About 400 millions gallons of this toxic sludge is produced every day in the Tar Sands, according to Nikiforuk. Further, he adds, Suncor and Syncrude, two of the corporate giants developing this gargantuan site, secured permission from the Alberta government to legally dump 150 pounds of arsenic directly into the Athabasca River every year.

After Dr. O’Connor requested a full investigation into the rare bile duct cancers, he was attacked, gagged and essentially run out of town by Health Canada officials supposedly responsible for protecting our health. A local, respected intern, familiar with the situation, remarked this was “not about shutting John up; this is about shutting John down.”

Nikiforuk exposes other examples of heavy-handed ‘petro-politics’ taking place in the Tar Sands, and the effect on our society, democracy and future. He makes the case that our addiction to oil fuels the stupidity and short sightedness of the Tar Sands, but he also provides us with an alternative: a Twelve Steps to Energy Sanity program to help us create a very different future for Northern Alberta and North America.

We highly recommend this book, and hope that Canadian politicians and policymakers will take their heads out of the Tar Sands – first reading the book, then taking swift action – before it’s too late.

Andrew Nikiforuk is the winner of a Governor General’s Award for Non-Fiction (Saboteurs: Wiebo Ludwig’s War Against Big Oil, 2002), seven National Magazine Awards and has been given top honours by the Association of Canadian Journalists for his investigative writing. His website is: www.andrewnikiforuk.com.

Reviewed by PCN Staff


• Andrew Nikiforuk talks about the Tar Sands (Dirty Oil: Alberta’s Tar Sands Explained)
• CBC Exposé: A Town’s Toxic Questions
• Wikipedia: polyaromatic hydrocarbons

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