Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Dispatch from the field_Tar Sands_ Garth Lenz

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

More imagery!
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.


  1. Garth - I've just become a follower today, quite by chance, having seen your Tedx talk. Thank you for bringing this story to us, and especially for the way you are bringing it, with appreciation for the beauty and environmental values at stake in the boreal forest and wetlands. I really appreciate the love your photographs show, for the land and the life that depends on it. I am now a follower, enriched and motivated all the more because of your work. Thanks!

  2. Please don't fall for the uninformed Propaganda about the Oil Sands.
    Bottom line is that oil production is a dirty business all over the world, unfortunately for now we need it and Alberta has the Cleanest Oil in the Planet soley due to our high standards and Engineering codes put into everyday practice in Alberta - We should be proud to have the cleanest and most efficient Oil production Facilities on the Planet ! ;)
    Looking at the current growth rate, globally we are falling short of 76 million barrels of oil a day - the oil needed to heat houses and facilitate transport around the world. In reality, every drop is needed and an energy equivalent on this scale in solar or wind power has not been provided by organisations like Greenpeace. Oil sands are a bridge between the oil-scarce present and a future of improved technology and less reliance on fossil fuels.

    Canadian oil sands offer a peaceful and transparent supply of energy!

    The oil sands industry has over the last decade reduced carbon emissions per barrel by 39% through the development of better technologies and processes. Equally, the industry is the largest employer of indigenous First Nation peoples in Canada, employing 2,300 directly and there is no evidence for the Greenpeace myths of increased cancer prevalence in fish. The industry is highly regulated and operates with transparency and high environmental standards.

    Unfortunately ignorant people like Garth and many others use this forum and other forums to their own personal gain rather than intelligent conversation backed up with true facts !! Do not be fooled by these scoundrels who would disgrace all Canadians !!!

  3. "The industry is highly regulated and operates with transparency and
    high environmental standards." -Canuck2211. There is not one oil
    company operating in the United States that has not claimed the same
    thing and continues to. Yet, we have had horrible accidents with
    devastating results. We have yet to see the granddaddy of them all!
    Perhaps a pipeline of the ugly black toxic crud from Canada will
    be the target of terrorists or something or other to wreck devastation on more life. Signs of leakage and environmental destruction from the Alaska pipeline has already happened.

    The devastation on the environment where the tar sands industry is
    occurring in Canada would have been unthinkable when native Americans were all living in harmony with their environment. I am
    sure many still are and are angry. Too many people have lost their
    soulful connection with the environment and the "oneness" that only
    the soul can see. The greed for oil and riches will be the devastation of our beautiful planet unless we speed up the process of delivering alternatives. People are simplifying their lives...traveling closer to home mainly. They are showing a lighter footprint on the planet.

    Continue to show your beautiful photographs of destruction that is
    happening as a result of heavy footprints on the planet and of the
    beauty that still exists in nature all over the planet. Love your
    children and teach them so they choose not to support such projects
    as the tar sands industry.

  4. If its all transparent and a very high environmental standard then why are millions of liters of toxins leaking into that river from the waste ponds and why are they only meters from a river and why are they not lined, 30something percent reduction in carbon emissions is insignificant means absolutely nothing if All the drinking water is highly toxic, man can live a lot longer on earth with global warming than it can with contaminated topsoil and toxic oceans and drinking water, perhaps its better to regress back to horse and cart and sailing ships than progress to extinction through eating and drinking mining toxins