Commentary  Dirty oil’s human price

Social and health injustice in Alberta’s tar sands

The industrial wasteland left in the wake of development of Alberta’s tar sands is far more than an environmental eyesore. The toxins generated by the crude oil refining process present a serious threat to human health and indigenous sovereignty.

The tar sands are composed of bitumen, clay, sand, and heavy metals. In order to produce synthetic crude oil from the bitumen, massive amounts of energy, steam, and water are required to melt the oil out of the sand. Five barrels of fresh water are required to produce one barrel of oil. The remnants of this extraction process are left in tailing ponds. “Ponds” is a misleading euphemism: these toxic sludge deposits span over 50 square kilometres of formerly pristine boreal forest and are a serious health threat to local communities. The crux of the problem with tailing ponds is that they leak. They leak in a major way. According to reports directly from tar sands developer Suncor Energy, a single tailing pond by the name of “Tar Island Dyke” is estimated to leak 67 litres of contaminated water per second. This tailing pond directly borders the Athabasca River.

Fort Chipewyan, a First Nations community of 1,200 situated downstream from the tar sands, is a devastating illustration of the human costs of bitumen oil extraction. Several years ago, John O’Connor, the doctor of Fort Chipewyan, began to speak up about the high number of incidences of cancer he was encountering. A 2009 study by Alberta Health Services in the community of Fort Chipewyan confirmed statistically elevated rates of rare cancers that are usually linked to environmental factors. Notably, between 1995 and 2006, cancers of the blood and lymphatic system were more than double what would be typically expected in the community.

A report released in November by Alberta ecologists Kevin Timoney and Peter Lee found significant reason for concern over elevated levels of toxins in water samples drawn from the Peace and Athabasca Rivers, near Fort Chipewyan. Furthermore, arsenic, mercury, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons were found in dangerous levels in local fish, fowl, and moose – species that comprise much of the traditional diet of the community. These toxins are known carcinogens. The report concluded that abnormal levels of arsenic and mercury in the local fish make them unsuitable for local consumption. The contamination of this food supply endangers the cultural identity, subsistence food sources, and health of the community.

In their recent Shell Jackpine mining proposal to increase bitumen extraction, Shell Canada has admitted that changes to groundwater quality “will be long term and irreversible.” Yet the Canadian government has failed to systematically regulate the full-scale effects of tar sands development on local water quality.

Despite growing concerns in the community and among activists, neither the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency nor the Department of Fisheries and Oceans have conducted a full assessment on the effect of the tar sands on water quality and local ecosystems. Instead, we are left to rely on industry reports and independently contracted reports, such as that of Timoney and Lee.

It is largely First Nations communities that are bearing the hidden costs of tar sands development. The injustice of an economic gain that profits select Canadians while jeopardizing others’ health and access to clean water is undeniable. We must ask ourselves: what value is being placed on human life in the cost-benefit analysis of the tar sands?
The Albertan landscape needs a biopsy: the tar sands are a growing tumour that we can’t afford to ignore any longer.

Nora Hope is a U2 Psychology student. She’s a campaign coordinator with Greenpeace McGill and a member of the Climate And Sustainability Advocacy Project, but the views expressed here are her own. Write her at