The first time I touched down in Fort Chipewyan, in 2011, I hitched a ride in to town with a friendly contractor. “What are you doing in town?” he asked me. “I’m producing a film on the oil sands and how it affects people downstream,” I replied. His response was the first of many go-to-answers, darling quotes if you will, I have heard from Canadians who believe that the Oil Sands are as harmless as mother nature because, doncha know, the Athabasca River flows over exposed bitumen deposits. Native people have been using bitumen for thousands of years to light torches and patch their canoes. You can find globs of oil stuck to your body after swimming in the summer.
Bitumen, in other words, is everywhere up here. It is as wholesome as apple pie. The Oil Sands aren’t making anything worse.
One of the troll-iest comments I’ve ever read posit that the Oil Sands are in fact cleaning up an environmental disaster: All this bitumen is polluting our environment and they’re going to take it out of the ground and out of harm’s way. These folks also leave their cars running on Earth Day, I’m pretty sure, to make a point, or something.
There’s two ways you can think about this. Traditional Knowledge (closely related with common sense, one of my favourite of all the senses) argues that there is a difference between the natural bitumen that is found in the environment and bitumen that has been heated to 80 degrees C in a caustic bath to strip the carbon from the sand. It’s a chemical reaction, and chemical reactions always leave things in a different state than what you started with. Traditional Knowledge already knows that the Oil Sands Affected Water (OSAW) are fundamentally chemically different than a blob of bitumen caught on a swimmer. Common sense also says that a tailing pond built right next to a river, made out of porous materials, is going to leech this special OSAW right into the environment. And it’s why the land, the animals and people are getting sick who live downstream from the Oil Sands.
A vein of bitumen is exposed by the waters of the Athabasca River. New science shows that there is an identifiable difference between groundwater tainted by Oil Sands Affected Water (or tailings pond water) and that which is found naturally. The oil sands are leeching chemically unnatural tailings into the environment.
But nope, the Oil Sands and government politicians have said either ‘no way’ or ‘no comment’ to common sense for years. That is, until now. Science has spoken! Science has found that there IS a difference! We’ve found the smoking gun!
Richard Frank, PHD, a scientist from Environment Canada who is responsible for this research, explained that up until now there was no scientific way of testing to see the difference in groundwater that had either been affected by OSAW or naturally percolated through a seam of bitumen, which leaves acid-extractable organics behind in both cases. “Up until a few years ago, we didn’t have the tools necessary to even test for this” he explained to a group of students and faculty at the University of Manitoba. His research, posted here, shows that when you look at groundwater that is very near to a tailings pond, and compare it to ground water that has been taken from an area rich in bitumen but far away from industry, there is a physical difference in the structure of the molecules; Oil Sands tailings water is LITERALLY different than what you find in nature. The reason this is exciting is that it’s the first step in being able to identify polluted groundwater at the source. (If you’re looking for an in depth scientific analysis, look elsewhere!)
There’s still so much work to be done. This research doesn’t scientifically explain why the fish and the animals are getting sick, or why so many people in Fort Chipewyan and other downstream communities are getting cancer that they are considered ‘cancer clusters.’ The science is so young and the sampling process is so expensive that they haven’t even started testing on bacteria, let alone scaling it up to human health. As far as the science is concerned, there’s a lot of work to be started and we’re still years from scientifically understanding what these differences mean when they are unleashed on the environment. It leaves me almost breathless to say this: Even though we know conclusively that OSAW is entering the environment, absolutely nothing will change as far the exponential expansion of the Oil Sands is concerned.
Michael Tyas is the managing editor of One River News. He graduated the University of Manitoba with an honours degree in environmental studies, and is a professional videographer and video trainer. He produced the feature length documentary "One River, Many Relations" in Fort Chipewyan. He continues to work with indigenous communities to share their stories around resource extraction, industrial development, and impacts on traditional territories.