CANADIAN MINING PERSPECTIVES: The slippery slope of the oil sands

The Alberta oil sands loom large in the minds of Canadians. The projects near Fort McMurray are providing thousands...
The Alberta oil sands loom large in the minds of Canadians. The projects near Fort McMurray are providing thousands of high-paying jobs. The billions of barrels of reserves are the envy of our energy-hungry neighbours to the south. Now if we could just get rid of the nasty environmental problems associated with mining and refining the oil sands.

I have been taken to task for earlier writing that solutions to the oil sands environmental problems were near. David Waugh, an archaeologist with FMA HERITAGE, wrote: "As someone who is sitting in an oil sands camp writing this, I can genuinely say that these 'tremendous strides' are entirely in the financial sector.

"The notion that there is any idea of water conservation in the oil sands is a joke. Even if fresh water were conserved, it's currently so toxic that it is poisoning fish, wildlife and people. The dangerous levels of mercury, arsenic and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) have caused a whole range of rare cancers in the people of Fort Chipewyan. Fish are being found with mutations, tumours and lesions, and an oil sands company found moose with as much as 453 times the acceptable level of arsenic in their system," he continued.

"The prospect of the reclamation of these sites is implausible, and will never happen. If anyone has ever seen these mines, they would realize how ridiculous reclamation would be. In order to reclaim and clean the Sydney Tar Ponds, an area consisting of 31 hectares, 700,000 tonnes of sediment was cleaned, costing over $400 million dollars. Now compare that with 5,000 hectares already established, with thousands more to come. Tell me, is it really worth carrying on such a destructive process if the cost of reclamation dwarfs that of the product? Is it really worth destroying one of the world's most important and diverse ecosystems?

"The United States shouldn't want a product that is instrumental in destroying the Canadian way of life, and neither should Canadians," Waugh concluded.

Our reader has a valid point: Is exploiting the oil sands worth permanent and very nasty environmental outcomes?

I won't answer that question because I don't think any environmentalist movement or coalition can stop what is happening in Alberta. North Americans are too oil-hungry for that to occur in the imaginable future.

The industry is capable of operating in a greener manner. It is learning to conserve water and is seeking a solution to the tailings ponds. I may have overstated its progress by calling it "tremendous strides." Let's call what the oil sands miners have accomplished "baby steps" and remember that even the longest journey starts with a single step.


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