The wheels of the Caterpillar 797B, the world's largest truck, are always going round and round at Shell Canada's Albian Sands mine.
The massive dump trucks, with wheels standing twice the size of a person and tires costing some 40,000 dollars apiece, carry tar sand 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
"There isn't a lot of work in Newfoundland [a traditionally poor province on Canada's Atlantic coast], so you can do pretty well out here," Brian Paley, a mechanic who fixes and inspects the three-storey trucks, told IPS.
Paley says he enjoys the work; he earns a six-figure salary and the rugged northern Alberta landscape allows him to snowmobile in the winter and camp during the summer.
However, some natives living downstream from the operation say the tar sands are destroying ecosystems that give people like Brian Paley so much pleasure.
"We've lost 108 people since 1990, the elders say they buried one person per year in the old days," said Michael Mercredi, a member Athabasca Chipewyan/Dene First Nation from Fort Chipewayn, a community of some 1,200 aboriginals located downstream from the tar sands. Many community members died of rare cancers they blame on the tar sands.
Like many young people from Ft. Chipewayn, Mercredi knows the tar sands well; he spent four years making big money driving trucks at one of the mines. "I just walked off the job one night, I thought 'this is wrong, we're destroying our own land'," said Mercredi.
"Where I come from is ground zero," Mercredi, who now works gathering traditional knowledge from elders in the community, told IPS
Dr. John O'Connor, Ft. Chipewayn's former physician, catalogued a string of cases of cholangiocarcinoma, an uncommon cancer of the bile duct among members of the community. The disease normally strikes 1 in 100,000 and Dr. O'Connor reported six cases in Ft. Chip over a short period, in addition to other strange ailments. He sent results to the local toxicologist's office. That's when the pro-industry Alberta government stepped in.
In 2006, Alberta Health and Wellness filed a complaint with the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta, alleging that Dr. O'Connor had engendered mistrust and raised undue alarm in Ft. Chipewayn. O'Connor left Alberta for Nova Scotia while the College of Physicians investigated the charges. He was cleared of wrongdoing in 2008 but decided not to return to Alberta.
"Dr. O'Connor was our martyr," said Mercredi. "He sacrificed part of his career to inform people about what was happening to us."
While the Chief of Ft. Chipewayn has spoken out vigorously about the social and environmental impacts of rapid tar sands expansion, other First Nations, including the Ft. Mackay Band, have embraced the mega-project because they say it brings jobs, money and development to the region.
Mercredi and other critics the of development say fish from the Athabasca River, which supplies water to the tar sands, are exhibiting strange deformities and mutations. In August, a group of children pulled a fish with two mouths from Lake Athabasca, near an area where tar sands tailings water had leached into the soil.
"One of the companies admitted to our community that a tailings pond was leaking into a stream," said Mercredi.
Elders from Ft. Chipewayn say the mutant fish is "a sign of what will happen to human life," according to testimony from a water conference held in the community in August.
Water is crucial for tar sands extraction: separating one barrel of oil from the sand requires at least three barrels of water.
According to peer-reviewed scientific articles written by Dr. David Schindler, Killam Memorial Chair and Professor of Ecology at the University of Alberta, the whole province and neighbouring regions will soon face "a crisis in water quantity and quality with far-reaching implications." Tar sands producers extract 2.5 million barrels of water per day from the Athabasca River.
Water becomes toxic during the oil extraction process and ends up in massive tailings ponds. In April, more than 400 ducks died after the flock landed on a tailings pond, owned by Syncrude, the largest tar sands consortium.
The largest tailings pond, controlled by Syncrude, contains 540 million cubic metres of poison waste water, making it the second largest dam on earth, according to the U.S. Department of the Interior.
"We are the most efficient user of water in the oil sands," said Steve Gaudet, the environmental manager for Syncrude, a joint venture between Imperial Oil, ConocoPhillips, Petro Canada, Nexen and several smaller players.
During a tour of Syncrude's main site, Gaudet told IPS that the consortium will eventually be able to "reclaim" the tailings water, making it safe again, by mixing tailings with fresh water and gypsum, so the water becomes a solid.
"The industry has not demonstrated the ability to reclaim tailings ponds," countered Simon Dyer from the Pembina Institute.
In March, the government of Alberta issued the first land reclamation certificate for a tar sands operator to Syncrude, for successfully reclaiming a 104-hectare parcel known as Gateway Hill. The company frequently showcases the area to visitors. A herd of bison graze nearby as Syncrude employees pass around boxed lunches to a delegation of journalists touring the area.
But, according to the Pembina Institute's Simon Dyer, Gateway Hill "isn't representative of the challenge industry is facing" because the area is "just topsoil that was stripped away" in previous decades. Over the long term, Dyer says the companies have to incorporate poison tailings into a dry landscape, and they have not proven their ability to do so.
While the gargantuan trucks trolling the land at Syncrude and Albian Sands can leave sceptical journalists in awe, they are not the most important tool for tar sands extraction. Roughly 20 percent of the oil here in northern Alberta can be extracted through surface mining; the rest requires underground techniques know as in-situ.
These underground techniques disturb less surface land, but critics say they are particularly energy intensive and wasteful. The energy equivalent of one barrel of oil is required to produce three barrels of oil from the tar sands, according to the Pembina Institute's Dan Woynillowicz.
Cyclic steam stimulation, colloquially referred to as "huff and puff", is one popular in-situ method where oil companies blast steam into underground bitumen deposits through pipes for a month at a time. Once the bitumen is hot enough, other pipes will suck the oil back up to the surface.
Michael Mercredi says that First Nations are in a unique position to slow or stop tar sands development, but that doesn't seem likely in Alberta's current political climate. If anything will slow the world's largest industrial project, and its voracious appetite for water and land, it will likely be factors far away from this province's muskeg flatlands.
While most oil company officials are mum on exact figures, it is estimated that extracting one barrel of oil from the tar sands costs between 25-35 dollars. If the world economy hits a prolonged recession and the price of oil drops below 50 dollar a barrel, investors may look away from the tar sands.
Without a major recession, or political changes in United States, the largest consumer of tar sands crude, it seems likely that Caterpillar 797Bs will continue hauling oil 24/7, regardless of the environmental costs.
*This is the second of a three-part series investigating the political, environmental and social impacts of Canada's oil sands development. Chris Arsenault holds the 2008/09 Phil Lind Fellowship at the University of British Columbia. A portion of his visit to Alberta was minded and financed by Shell Canada.
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