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Tar-ma is a Bitch!: the Real Tragedy of Fort McMurray

In case you have been on a meditation retreat the past few days, here’s the story: the wildfire at Fort McMurray, Alberta. At 328 square miles in size, this wildfire has forced all of its 88,000 residents to flee and destroyed, at the time of writing this, over 1,600 buildings. So far there are no direct fatalities as a result of this fire, but communities have been destroyed, homes and cultural heritage lost, not to mention that the wilderness and animals inhabiting this vast area are ravaged.

Surrounding Fort McMurray are large deposits of bitumen (extremely heavy crude oil) in an area called the Athabasca oil sands, the third largest reserves of oil in the world (only after reserves in Saudi Arabia and Venezuela). For years, activists have fought the Canadian government which had reduced environmental and health risks posed by these large-scale mining operations (ie. open-pit mining and in situ extraction), damaging the environment and human life. Even a well-known report by Environmental Defence, a health organisation, reported in 2008 that the Tar Sands generate enormous amounts of toxic chemicals that affect the land, animals, and humans alike:

Of primary concern are naphthenic acids, mercury, arsenic salts and PAHs. The levels found by independent scientists already present a toxic hazard to humans and wildlife. But even more disturbing is the fact that they are rising. Scientists have learned a great deal about PAHs in recent years, particularly as a result of research following the Exxon Valdez oil spill. We now know that waterborne PAHs are toxic to embryonic fish at concentrations as low as 1 part per billion (ppb).   Looking at sediment concentrations, even the RAMP has found mean concentrations of PAHs in sediments to be rising from 1 ppm (part per million) in 2001 to 1.4 by 2005 as far downstream from the Tar Sands as the Athabasca delta. (6)

The myth then perpetuated by the government was that the Tar Sands could undergo “reclamation” whereby the land is dug up after the oil is extracted and then to be returned to its original state. No mention was made of the strip mines and tailings ponds that are, in reality, left behind.   No mention is made of the damage caused in detail by these tar sands which is a constant toxic pollution which functions as a very slow-motion oil spill affecting the region’s rivers and ground water (experts estimate that this could be far worse than the Exxon Valdez oil spill); those people living downstream (notably First Nations) have already chronicled the deformations of pickerel and walleye in Lake Athabasca, game animals and fish have being found covered with tumours and mutations and since the early naughts, there has been observed in humans cancers and autoimmune diseases in Fort Chipewyan.

Last fall it was revealed that the previous government under Stephen Harper had spent over $30m on tar sands advocacy over two years (ie. public relations, advertising, and domestic and international “outreach activities”) in order to advocate for oil exports. Most damning in this advocacy was that some of the outreach actions involved lobbying against a European environmental measure called the EU Fuel Quality Directive that took aim at tar sands exports, delaying its passing. Yet, the strict EU laws which prevent the US from exporting its own crude were circumvented when the US began re-exporting Canadian crude to EU nations since April 2014 (ie. Italy, the Netherlands, and Spain). And MathPro estimates that of Europe’s 96 refineries, 71 can refine heavy crude, indicating the EU’s impending change in fuel imports with the National Resources Defence Council predicting that bewteen 5.3% and 6.7% of Europe’s crude oil would emanate from North America by 2020 despite the protests of many environmental advocacy groups throughout the EU, such as UK Tar Sands Newtwork.

While media sources are transmitting the brutal events of Fort McMurray and its inhabitants, there has been virtually no coverage about the fact that many of the people whose lives and communities are destroyed by this fire, have sadly had a hand in contributing to this fire. Just as the rising temperatures this past winter have been the highest in modern history with the month of February breaking an all time record, one cannot separate an enterprise which directly contributes to the increase of the earth’s temperature from its tragic—even if unwanted—effects. The unseasonably hot Spring combined with the dry conditions of the boreal forest has left this part of Alberta a virtual tinder box. Approximately 14,000 of McMurray’s residents commute daily to work at the oil sands plants. These tar sands are natural bitumen deposits which produce 23% more greenhouse gas emissions than conventional oils, due to their energy and water-intensive production process.

And this is the greatest, inescapable tragedy for those workers who struggle for a livelihood in this part of the province where the largest industry in town is the very one which indirectly destroyed their town.

The links between the tar sands and climate change have been confirmed and reconfirmed by science. Even the Keystone XL Tar Sands Pipeline commissioned in 2010 which was heavily protested on both sides of the border, is now in its third and final phase of operation with very few questioning the devastating effects that these tar sands have and will effect upon the earth.   The tyranny of fossil fuel is still with us and if anyone knows it now, it is the inhabitants of Fort McMurray.

More articles by:

Julian Vigo is a scholar, film-maker and human rights consultant. Her latest book is Earthquake in Haiti: The Pornography of Poverty and the Politics of Development (2015). She can be reached at: julian.vigo@gmail.com

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