The Why Files The Why Files --

Tar sands: Heavy price for heavy oil?

Pollution problems

Four workers standing in front of enormous truck, each worker shorter than one tire
One load in this giant truck hauls about 350 tons of tar sands to the processing location. We didn't ask about how many gallons per mile this "heavy hauler" slurps, but we guess the oil company can just put the fuel on its company credit card...

Disturbing large tracts of oily sand and processing the bitumen it contains is releasing large amounts of air and water pollution, according to a recent survey by Kevin Timoney, an Alberta ecologist (see #4 in the bibliography). One topic of concern is polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), a group of chemicals suspected of causing a variety of health problems.

In studies that Timoney cited, the concentration of 17 PAHs were, on average, 610 percent higher in a river after it flowed through an Alberta tar-sands complex.

PAHs are usually produced during low-temperature combustion, but these PAHs "are primarily in the tar sands themselves, they are a constituent of bitumen," says Timoney. "Industry is taking a very stable geologic deposit that is sitting there, isolated from groundwater, and bringing it to the surface, processing it and dumping the waste into tailing ponds. PAHs are leaking from the tailings ponds, pipelines, the stacks and the pits themselves."

A major dispute has arisen in Fort Chipweyan, a Mikisew Cree community downstream of the oil sands, over a rare bile-duct cancer called cholangiocarcinoma. John O'Connor, who was the community's physician until 2007, says he saw six confirmed or suspected cases in a town of just 900 people; the cancer usually strikes about 2 people in 100,000. Although provincial studies did not find an elevated rate of confirmed cancers, O'Connor says that's because most of the patients in the remote village died of the aggressive cancer before biopsies could be taken.

Percentage of Canada's total oil production from oil sands:

Percentage of world's recoverable oil reserves
represented by Canadian oil sands:

Percentage of US oil imports from Canada:

Source: CRS Report to Congress: North American Oil Sands: History of Development, Prospects for the Future, Humphries, Marc, updated January 17, 2008..

Drinking poison, eating poison?

Pollution from the oil industry concerns native peoples living downstream, says George Poitras, a vocal opponent of tar sands development. Food is expensive, Poitras says, and most local people continue to rely on local game and fish.

 Map shows the Athabasca Oil Sands, the Cold Lake Oil Sands, and the Peace River Oil Sands
From map by NormanEinstein
Alberta, Canada, has three major oils sand deposits.

"We know the Athabasca River is polluted, and likely a lot of the reason is effluent from the tar sands," Poitras says. "The fears we have are that an escalated level of contaminants is flowing directly into our community, where we take drinking water, and we suspect it's contributing to disproportionate levels of rare cancers."

The "official position" of the Mikisew Cree is that "we want a moratorium on any new applications" to mine tar sands, Poitras says.

arty1949.shtml "> Manitoba Historical Society </a>  ALTTX Black and white photo of native Chipewyan family, man holding fish woman holding hands of two kids
A Chipewyan family poses at Duck Lake, Manitoba, in 1949. Local fish are still an essential part of the northern diet. Some people living downstream from tar sands, however, now worry about contaminatation.

Something in the air

Air pollution is another problem in the tar sands. According to Timoney (see Does the Alberta Tar Sands... in the bibliography), "Nationally, the Syncrude Mildred Lake plant ranked in the top six of polluters for all six air contaminants [including particulates, sulfur dioxide, hydrogen sulfide and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), a large category of carbon-bearing pollutants] in 2006. For VOCs, Canada's top four national polluters were tar sands facilities north of Ft. McMurray, the primary source of which is evaporation from tailings ponds."

As pollution questions continue to swirl around oil sand operations, Timoney urges the provincial government to sponsor a comprehensive, independent survey of environmental impacts. Such an effort, he says, would have to look at how tar sands development, as a whole, has changed Alberta's environment since commercial oil began flowing in 1967. "One thing that's commonly missing is a good description of baseline conditions," Timoney says. "Whenever a new application comes up, they consider the current conditions as the baseline." Studies that fail to use pre-development baseline data, "will minimize the true amount of change because they are constantly moving the goalposts."

Land restoration: Can it, will it, be done?

According to Timoney, tar-sand mining and development have already eradicated more than 65,000 hectares of boreal forest by 2008 (almost a 100 percent increase over 33,500 hectares in 2002). Alberta requires that land be restored "not exactly to what they had before, but to an ecosystem that is operating in a manner that is consistent with what you find in the boreal forest," says E.A. Johnson, a professor of biological sciences at the University of Calgary.

Aerial photo of green forest with large brown square pattern clear cut.
Drilling from "well pads" like this will be used to extract the deep oil sands.

Some pits are already being reclaimed, says Philip Vircoe, in Shell's Calgary media relations office, and restoration techniques are improving. "The reclamation process starts as soon as the land is cleared of trees and brush. Soil is removed in layers and stored in separate piles to maintain four distinct soil types. Shell research found these soils will provide the best foundation for successful reclamation. Seeds from local plants such as blueberry are collected and sent to registered nurseries so they can be replanted during land reclamation."

Shell plans to "reclaim as we go," Vircoe adds. "Large-scale reclamation is expected within 15 years of disturbance, much sooner than the 25-year time frame historically used in the area. This means that within 15 years of the mine's groundbreaking date, the soil will be reconstructed and put in place, and vegetation planted."

However, Johnson, author of a report on restoration (see #5 in the bibliography), questions whether reclamation after the massive disturbance of strip mining is even possible, and notes that some efforts have been paltry: "The approach is to put a little organic matter on the top, plant something to stabilize the soil so you won't get erosion, plant some trees, and hope that will solve it."

Strip mining creates a staggering restoration problem, Johnson adds. "We think traditionally of restoration in terms of restoring the plants, but here we are going have to reconstruct the drainage, the groundwater flow, and those are things about which we have little knowledge. It's not clear to me that everybody understands how complicated this is."

A big job

The striking photos of oversize trucks and giant open pits may give a misleading picture of restoration related to deep, in situ mining, however, as the shallow deposits that can be strip-mined contain only about 18 percent of Alberta's oil sands. Eventually, much more land will be disturbed, but more mildly, by in situ extraction. These deep sands are not excavated, but rather heated with steam injections so the softened bitumen can be raised to the surface through a separate series of pipes.

The process leaves a warren of drill sites, roads and the long straight openings that were used to locate the sands through seismic techniques.

Aerial photo of forest land with grid patterns cutting through the trees
Oil-sand companies shake the ground to find deep oil sands; the process requires cutting a dense grid of seismic survey lines through the forest.

Even though it seems more feasible to to rebuild the landscape after deep mining than after open-pit mining, a report from the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) did not claim that any in situ projects had been successfully restored.

Fixing the ponds

Oil sand production produces a large quantity of "tailings," a mix of water, silt, clay and residual bitumen, that currently must be stored in vast tailings ponds where the goop may remain suspended in the water for a century. Because that leisurely pace hinders efforts to reclaim the ponds, industry is working on technology to accelerate the drying process.

For the moment, however, these ponds, and the sometimes fragile dikes that contain them, are a threat to surface water and birds that may mistake the polluted ponds for natural, oil-free wetlands. Ecologist Kevin Timoney says the tailings ponds cover more than 120 square kilometers.

Aerial photo of a large pond with a brown sheen of pollution on the surface
Photo: Greenpeace
A tailings pond outside a Syncrude processing facility. Large amounts of water are needed to separate bitumen from sand and clay. This enormous pond contains water contaminated with byproducts from the oil separation process; the water is too toxic to be returned to the Athabasca River.

"Reclamation is going on, but it does take a long time," says Greg Stringham, vice-president for oil sands at the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. "Suncor is going have its first pond, from many years ago, reclaimed by 2010, so it's feasible, doable."

In the meantime, water in the ponds is proving toxic to fish, says Glen van der Kraak, a fishery biologist at the University of Guelph, Ontario. "We have been consistently finding impairments of reproductive physiology associated with exposure to tailing pond water, in terms of alterations in sex hormone levels and egg production. Clearly there is endocrine disruption occurring." The prime suspect, he says, is napthenic acids, a group of chemicals found in the tailing ponds.

All ecological restorations are experiments, and experience shows that they may need to be monitored and adjusted for 50 years or more, Johnson says. "Part of problem is that in almost any project, government and industry want close the file and move on very quickly."

The CAPP reports that 12 percent of oil-sands strip mines have been reclaimed, but "Most of these areas have not been submitted to the government for reclamation certification, because they remain within the boundaries of active mining operations."

To date, the government of Alberta has certified that 104 hectares are restored, but that number is illusory, says Simon Dyer of the Pembina Institute, which opposes tar sands development, because it "was clean overburden stripped off 30 years ago; it is not representative of the challenge that the companies face in terms of reclamation" of open-pit mines."

We challenge you to read more in our bibliography.


Terry Devitt, editor; Steve Furay, project assistant; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; David Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive

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