Canadian Tar Sands Go to Trial

Alberta’s tar sands projects are perhaps the most environmentally devastating form of fossil fuel production on Earth. Ancient Boreal Forest in the north of the Canadian province is being reduced to a vast wasteland to extract the low-grade petroleum in the tar sands.

And that’s just what you might call the primary ecological devastation wrought by the tar sands. Among the many secondary effects are the thousands of migratory birds who die every year on their way to the Boreal when they land on the toxic slurry that is left over after the petroleum is extracted from the sands. The birds become covered in oil and sink to the bottom.

Syncrude Canada is responsible for 60 percent of the 222 billion gallons of toxic sludge currently sitting in massive tailing ponds that the birds mistake for bodies of water. The company is fighting a suit brought against it in an Alberta court over the death of some 1,600 ducks that died in one of its tailing ponds last year.

Why exactly Syncrude wants to have this fight so publicly is something of a mystery, especially because the company was originally apologetic, promising to work with wildlife officers to address the problem. Noise cannons are typically used to scare off birds who might land on these tailing ponds, but in this case Syncrude’s cannons didn’t fire as they should have. The company insists that it’s not guilty of any negligence or wrongdoing, however, and that this was all just a big mistake.

Kind of reminds me of a petulant child who won’t take responsibility for their actions, stamping their feet and whining “But I said I was sorry!”

The trial is making headlines that can’t be too welcome by the company. Last week, photos of oil-covered, dying ducks introduced as evidence against Syncrude were plastered across the covers of Alberta’s newspapers and broadcast on news programs. (Syncrude didn’t take all the flack: Alberta premier, and lead tar-sands cheerleader, Ed Stelmach found himself embroiled in a bit of controversy when he told reporters he hadn’t seen the photos despite their prominence in the media, leading many to wonder how serious the Alberta government actually is about holding Syncrude responsible for the deaths of these ducks.)

Environmentalists aren’t having the “it was a mistake” defense. They say this particular case is just one more bit of proof that the tailing ponds themselves are indefensible. “I think that this incident specifically showed the world just how toxic the tailings ponds are,” Sierra Club Prairie director Lindsay Telfer told CBC News. “We know now that the waters have killed 1,600 ducks, we know that those waters are leaking into the Athabasca [River] and we know downstream communities have significant health problems.”

The importance of the outcome of this case is obvious: Will the Canadian government hold polluters responsible for cleaning up after themselves and keeping their toxic mess from hurting animals and people? Canada is currently the number one supplier of oil to the U.S., and more and more of that oil is coming from these massively destructive tar sands projects. You can bet oil companies and other polluters the world over are watching this case to see what precedent it sets.

Worse yet, as Syncrude refuses to take responsibility for the mess it’s made, that mess is likely to keep claiming victims. A report released by the Boreal Songbird Initiative says that proposed expansions of Alberta’s tar sands operations would likely result in anywhere from 17,000 to 300,000 more migratory birds losing their lives thanks to tailing ponds.

Which begs the question: How many thousands more creatures have to pay with their lives for the grotesque mistake that is the tar sands?

Image: Syncrude’s Mildred Lake Plant near Fort McMurray, Alberta via Wikipedia

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