Tar Sands: A Saskatchewan Perspective
By Karen Rooney
When people hear the term “tar sands”, the province of Saskatchewan is not usually what comes to mind. And while as a province we have been able to slip under the radar, both the impacts of Alberta’s tar sands on our province and our own potential tar sands development are very tangible.
Each year, more than 150,000 tonnes of acid-producing emissions are generated by the Alberta tar sands. It can take anywhere from 2-14 days before these toxic emissions are re-introduced into land or water, in the form of acid-rain. Because of this time lapse between the production of emissions and the deposit of acid rain, land and water up to 1,000 kilometres away from the original source can be drastically affected by tar sands emissions.
What does this mean for Saskatchewan?
Saskatchewan’s northern forests, lakes and soil are among the most susceptible to the damages of acidification, according to the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment. At this point, monitoring programs initiated by Saskatchewan Environment and Environment Canada indicate that while most lakes currently maintain a pH level between 6.0 – 7.0 (considered healthy), changes are happening as acid rain with a pH of 5.0 or less regularly falls on these bodies of water. Acid rain has been shown to kill fish populations by first depleting and then depriving them of their food sources, while both fish and their eggs can be poisoned by the hazardous acid.
The LaLoche-Clearwater area is deemed to be the most vulnerable to these acid rain deposits. This is also where current exploration is occurring in Saskatchewan – without any prior environmental assessment. Studies have begun showing that the forest soil in this area is already exceeding the critical load of sulphur and nitrogen – meaning that the soil can tolerate no more damage and that the damage caused by acid rain is potentially irreparable.
Acid rain damages forests by decreasing the capacity of trees and plants to effectively photosynthesize and grow, by increasing the risk of disease in plant populations and by depleting the natural defences that trees and plant employ against insects and drought. The eventual outcome of this damage is forest death. The development of Saskatchewan’s tar sands would be the final seal on this areas fate.
Concerns are also being raised regarding the contamination of Lake Athabasca, which sits on the Saskatchewan-Alberta border. Tainted and polluted water from the Athabasca River flows into this lake and in periods of high river inflow and strong winds, this water can flow great distances into Saskatchewan. Tar sands mining releases a variety of dangerous chemicals and among these, some of the most concerning are polycylic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH). PAH are a combination of over 100 chemicals which are formed during the burning of coal, gas and oil – in this case, they are most often produced by the burning of diesel fuels from mining fleets.
The PAH levels in the Athabasca delta have been shown to be double the cancer-causing threshold in fish. Not only are these polluted waters a risk to valuable ecosystems but they are a threat to human populations as well, as evidenced by the high rates of rare cancers in the downstream community of Fort Chipewyan.
Saskatchewan is clearly experiencing the effects of the Alberta tar sands on our own land and water resources. We should be asking ourselves if tar sands development here, and the destruction that will ensue, is worth the cost to both our people and our environment