Tar Sands

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The INDIGENOUS ENVIRONMENTAL NETWORK CANADIAN INDIGENOUS TAR SANDS CAMPAIGN works with Indigenous and non-Indigenous supporters and environmental organizations, social justice organizations and unions for a coordinated and collective response led by concerned First Nations and Métis opposing the expansion of the tar sands.

Canadian Tar Sands Resistance

Indigenous peoples (known as First Nations) in Canada are taking the lead to stop the largest industrial project on Mother Earth: the Tar Sands Gigaproject. Northern Alberta is ground zero with over 20 corporations operating in the tar sands sacrifice zone, with expanded developments being planned. The cultural heritage, land, ecosystems and human health of First Nation communities including the Mikisew Cree First Nation, Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, Fort McMurray First Nation, Fort McKay Cree Nation, Beaver Lake Cree First Nation Chipewyan Prairie First Nation, and the Metis, are being sacrificed for oil money in what has been termed a “slow industrial genocide”. Infrastructure projects linked to the tar sands expansion such as the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline and the Keystone XL pipeline, threaten First Nation communities in British Columbia, Canada and American Indian communities throughout the United States. Community resistance is growing and Indigenous peoples throughout North America have mounted substantive challenges to tar sands expansion.

Just a few years ago, people in Canada, U.S. and Europe heard little to nothing about the Canadian tar sands. Today, the tar sands have become a topic of national and international discussion as stories of cancer epidemics in the community of Fort Chipewyan, massive wildlife losses related to toxic contamination, environmental degradation and increased vocal resistance from impacted communities have shattered the ‘everything is fine’ myth propagated by the Canadian and Alberta governments. A poll conducted in 2010 found that 50% of Canadian citizens believe the risks involved with tar sands projects outweighed the benefits.1 Yet, tar sands expansion continues. Already the Athabasca delta has been completely altered from a pristine boreal forest, clean rivers and lakes to a devastated ecosystem of deforestation, open pit mines and watershed where fish regularly exhibit tumors and birds landing on contaminated tailings ponds die instantly.

Impacts to US and Canadian Indigenous Communities

In Northern Alberta, laying beneath 10.6 MILLION ACRES (4.3 million hectares), an area the size of Florida, are tar sands that are a mixture of sand, clay, and a heavy crude oil or tarry substance called bitumen.

To get this substance out of the ground - process the bitumen into heavy crude oil the industry strips all the trees, plants, and critical habitat called "over-burden" or an 'in-situ" or at the site/in place extraction method.

To process the extracted bitumen in upgraders to synthetic crude oil that is then piped to the U.S. for refining. These upgrade facilities require large areas that are more like cities, with smoke stacks bellowing pollutants into the air and the wastewater from the process are emptied and stored in huge toxic tailings ponds that can be seen from space.

For each barrel of oil produced from the tar sands takes from 110 to 350 gallons of water (or 2 to 6 barrels) of water.

In 2007, Alberta's government approved the withdrawal of 119.5 BILLON gallons of water for tar sands extraction. An estimated 82% of this water comes from the Athabasca River. Toxic wastewater is discharged in holding or tailing ponds that now leak 11 million liters of toxic waste per day into the Athabasca and seep into the ground water. This water flows northward (downstream) further into Indigenous territories.

Since this toxic waste has been flowing into the river and seeping into the groundwater - rare and virulent cancers have affect many of the Indigenous Community members- and fish and game have been found with physical abnormalities and deformations and tumors in fish.

Impacts: Currently, tar sands operations are licensed to divert 652 million cubic meters of fresh water each year, 80% from the Athabasca River. In comparison, this amounts to approximately 7 times the annual water needs of the city of Edmonton. About 1.8 million cubic metres of this water becomes highly toxic tailings waste each day.

In 2008, tar sands operations produced 37.2 megatonnes of greenhouse gas emissions, an increase of 121% between 1990 and 2008. Planned tar sands growth indicates a near tripling of emissions between 2008 and 2020, to a projected 108 megatonnes.

In 2006, unexpectedly high rate of rare cancers were reported in the community of Fort Chipewyan. In 2008, Alberta Health confirmed a 30% rise in the number of cancers between 1995 -2006. However, the study lacks appropriate data and is considered a conservative estimate by many residents.

Caribou populations have been severely impacted by tar sands extraction. The Beaver Lake Cree First Nation has experienced a 74% decline of the Cold Lake herd since 1998 and a 71% decline of the Athabasca River herd since 1996. Today, just 175 – 275 caribou remain. By 2025, the total population is expected to be less than 50 and locally extinct by 2040.