Tar Sands Project an Ecological Disaster


Jean M. Chapman

Moscow-Pullman Daily News 6/28/11

There are two commercials on television touting how we “have all the natural gas we need right here in North America.” We probably do, but at what cost to our rivers, land and air?

We all follow the megaloads that are going and proposed to go through our area. This equipment is going up into northeastern Alberta and to the Athabasca oil sands. Why there? This is where Trans-Canada Oil is mining the tar sands. It is mined in two ways: Either by strip or open pit mining, or injecting steam deep into the earth to make the tars increase their fluidity, so that they can be pumped to the surface.

Tar sands are a mixture of clay, sand, water and bitumen – a heavy, black, viscous oil. In the process, cadmium, iron, lead, mercury and arsenic are released into the soil. Large amounts of hydrogen sulfide enter the atmosphere, the gas that gives Yellowstone geothermal features the “rotten-egg” smell. This one operation is the largest contributor to Canadian greenhouse gases.

A 2007 poll in Alberta showed that 71 percent of respondents favored a halt of the new tar sands project until the environmental concerns were addressed. Alberta Premier Ed Stelmachl said: “The free market will solve this.” Doesn’t that sound familiar? Like what Alan Greenspan said repeatedly before Congress on the derivatives before their collapse. (Greenspan has now admitted he was wrong.)

This oil project is centered near the Fort McHenry area that borders Treaty 8 lands of the First Peoples (native Canadians). Already there are increased cancer rates in Fort Chipewyan and deformed fish in Lake Athabasca. In the future, if the premier admits he was wrong, how will the cancer rates and deformation of fish and potentially other species be addressed? A “bailout” for fish and cancer victims will not work.

The fluidity of this noxious substance has to be increased by mixing it with other hydrocarbons so that it can be piped to Texas. No matter where I searched I couldn’t find out which hydrocarbons. It probably means gas. This pipeline that is supposedly being built to Texas will pass through North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and finally Texas to get to the Gulf oil refineries – right down the heart of America, or if you’re more geographically inclined, the 100th meridian.

As most biologists or zoologists will tell you, the 100th meridian divides the two major east-west eco-zones for flora and fauna in North America. I grew up in Bismarck, west of the 100th meridian and went to college in Fargo, east of the meridian. It was a magical mixture of both eco-zones. This pipeline potentially endangers both eco-zones.

Further beneath the proposed route lays the heart of the Ogallala Aquifer, the largest underground water source in our country. So far this aquifer doesn’t recharge, like our Grand Ronde doesn’t. During various flooding along this route in the past 20 years there has been no recharging. Another problem with this proposed pipeline is that it will be unable to detect a leak under 700,000 gallons.

Why don’t the oil companies involved – Suncor, Syncrude, or Shell Canada – enlarge the oil refineries in Alberta, Mandan, North Dakota, or Pierre, South Dakota? The oil will just have to be shipped back north again. Our megaloads are destined for an inglorious future. It sure seems like the Bushes, Cheney, and Halliburton are still in the White House and most definitely continue to control Congress.

The other major natural gas source in our country is the gas trapped in rocks deep underground. This gas is accessed by “fracking.” Fracking involves pumping millions of gallons of water into the ground with a mixture of diesel fuel, benzene, formaldehyde and hydrochloric acid. This toxic brew passes right through the water table endangering drinking water. The EPA can’t regulate this because of the “Halliburton Loophole.” During the Bush-Cheney administration, Halliburton helped the EPA write some of its regulations regarding the oil industry. Halliburton is the third largest producer of fracking fluids. Above ground spills of this fracking fluid have become common.

Woe is us!

(Jean M. Chapman is a founding member of the Pullman Civic Trust and served as chairwoman of the Whitman County Planning Commission for nine years.)

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