21 october 2013

In Canada's Alberta province, oil sands boom is a two-edged sword

The oil sands industry has brought good jobs to villages such as Fort Chipewyan. But there is fear about cancer and the environment.

By Neela Banerjee, Los Angeles Times,October 21, 2013

FORT CHIPEWYAN, Canada — In the Cree language, the word "athabasca" means "a place where grass is everywhere." Here in Alberta, the Athabasca River slices through forests of spruce and birch before spilling into a vast freshwater delta and Lake Athabasca.

But 100 miles upstream, the boreal forest has been peeled back by enormous strip mines, where massive shovels pick up 100 tons of earth at a time and dump it into yellow trucks as big as houses.

The tarry bitumen that is extracted is eventually shipped to refineries, many in the United States, to be processed into gasoline, diesel and other fuels. But the leftover polluted slurry remains in miles-long impoundments, some high above the banks of the river. Air cannons sound periodically to keep migratory birds from landing on the toxic ponds.

Oil sands production, as the procedure is called, is booming in northeastern Alberta. And it is expected to grow far larger if the Obama administration issues a federal permit for the Keystone XL pipeline from the province.

Debate in the U.S. over the pipeline has largely focused on whether the oil sands would contribute to climate change, or spill along the route. But in northeastern Alberta, the effect of the oil sands industry plays out in more complicated ways.

Oil sands are exploited by injecting high-pressure steam into the earth or by strip mining to extract the sticky bitumen, which is then washed away from clay and sand, swiftly heated and diluted with chemicals before being shipped to refineries.

The petroleum industry has funneled billions of dollars into Canada's national, provincial and local economies and employs thousands of people in places with few other jobs. But the oil sands boom may also be polluting the air and water, and is stoking fear that it is damaging the health of those in its arc.

"From everything I hear from the indigenous peoples, their thinking seems to be 'It's a choice between whether we starve to death or are poisoned to death,'" said Dr. John O'Connor, a general practitioner who has worked here since 1993.

In Fort Chipewyan, a village of 1,100 people on the north shore of Lake Athabasca, cancer and autoimmune diseases such as lupus have taken a heavy toll on its mostly indigenous Cree, Dene and Metis population during the last 20 years. In 2009, the provincial government found that cancer rates here over a 12-year period were 30% higher than normal for such a small community (51 cancers in 47 individuals versus an expected 39 cancers).

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