Alberta, Canada March 2010
Just got in last night and am just finishing an all-nighter editing about 2000 images. I knew I should go to bed but I went from shooting aerials in a small plane, landing, and then racing to catch my flight home, so I was anxious to get that material downloaded, backed up, and then have a look at it. No chance staying warm on this shoot. I flew in minus 23 yesterday shooting aerials. I hate to think what the wind chill was with the window open. After just a minute or so, you start to loose feeling in your hands and face, even with gloves on. As a result. My face and hands are cracked and red, low level frost nip I suppose. However I have some images I am happy with for compensation.
It is a different feeling being there with snow and ice and frigid temperatures. The cold weather really makes the smoke from the upgraders and the stream off the tailings ponds much more impressive, giving more of an apocalyptic, Mordor-like feeling. From the ground you feel like you are in some frozen gulag forced labour camp, or some dead planet from a science fiction movie where convicts are forced to labour. Of course, neither of these comparisons is really much of a stretch. As the biggest industrial project in the history of the earth, and the most environmentally damaging and toxic one, the Tar Sands aren’t exactly teeming with life at the best of times. However, at this time of year, they seem particularly lifeless and bleak.
It is easy to forget that just a few years ago, most of this was still intact boreal forest and wetlands. The breeding habitat for almost half the bird species found in North America, home to bison, woodland caribou, grizzly, wolves, and many other of North America’s most iconic and threatened species. This land was also part of the planet’s greatest terrestrial carbon sink. For the companies mining this land for bitumen – which is what the material found under this land is – these forests and wetlands are “overburden”, to be cut, dredged, and dug up. It is ironic the the planets greatest carbon sink is being destroyed in order to produce oil from the tar sands, a process that produces more carbon, and consumes more energy and water, than any other oil recovery and refining process. Proposed expansion of the Tsar Sands would see the possible quintupling of production within as little as two decades. This would result in the intense industrialization of an area the size of Florida.
Circling over the frozen Athabasca, you can easily see how perilously close the vast tailings ponds are to the river. Just a few metres in places. These tailings ponds, which are so large they can be seen from outer space, are unlined, filled with the most toxic substances on the planet, and leaking into the Athabasca River and the food chain of the some 300,000 indigenous people who live downstream in the Mackenzie basin. They are the world’s largest impoundments of toxic waste. A report, prepared for Suncour in 2007, found that one of its tar ponds along the Athabasca River was leaking at a rate of one million gallons per day, or the equivalent of two Olympic size swimming pools each day. In the downstream indigenous community of Fort Chipewyan cases of rare cancers have skyrocketed and a 2007 study showed elevated levels of mercury, arsenic, and PAHS in fish, water, and sediment.
In late April of 2008, about 1600 migrating ducks mistook Syncrude’s Arora North tailings pond for a lake. They immediately became coated in toxic oil and sank to the bottom of the lake. Syncrude is currently in court on charges related to the incident. - Garth Lenz, iLCP Fellow
Garth Lenz Photography- Tar Sands imagery (go to Index, Tar sands March 2010)
BACKGROUND on Garth's Project
I am currently in the field producing stills for a film documentary to be hosted on the CBC Nature of Things television program. The images will also form part of my ongoing project on the Alberta Tar Sands and the Canadian boreal region. Work from this project has already been incorporated into a number of ENGO campaigns as well as illustrated stories in GEO, Canadian Geographic, The Nature Conservancy Magazine, and other publications. I have also used this material in presentations I have given in Canada, the U.S., and Europe The ultimate goal is to produce a book, traveling exhibit, multimedia piece, and outreach presentation tour. On Tuesday April 13th I will be presenting as part of a panel at the Climate Action Symposium at George Washington University in Washington D.C.
Rainforest Action Network(RAN) - Help RAN stop Tar Sands development
Dirty Oil Sands - The Dirt on Oil Sands
Tar Sands Watch -Take Action Now!
National Resource Defense Council(NRDC) - STOP DIRTY FUELS
NRDC's mission is to safeguard the Earth: its people, its plants and animals and the natural systems on which all life depends.