FORT MCMURRAY, Alberta, Canada - Eleven Greenpeace activists entered Syncrude's Aurora North Tar Sands facility north of Fort McMurray today, erecting a banner that transformed the opening of a tailings pond pipe into the "mouth" of a giant skull, spewing toxic sludge. Shortly after 8:00 am, two Greenpeaceers blocked the pipe by shutting down the valve before chaining and locking themselves to the control box.
Two other activists hung a banner reading "World's Dirtiest Oil: Stop the Tar Sands," on the bank of the tailings pond.
Before they could completely block the second pipe, Syncrude security took the 11 activists into custody and handed them over to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Charges are pending against all the demonstrators.
Syncrude confirms that the Greenpeace activists entered the Aurora site today without permission. The company believes they gained access by breaking through a locked gate.
The protestors were "escorted to another area on the site to ensure their safety," the company said in a statement, adding that there were no environmental impacts or operational upsets as a result of the incident.
"We are thankful no one was hurt," said Syncrude President and CEO Tom Katinas. "While we encourage debate and dialogue about the environmental impacts of oil sands development, we do expect it to be conducted in a lawful and professional manner."
"The action of the protestors put themselves at risk of injury given their unfamiliarity with the operations of a large and complex industrial site," Katinas said.
"Big oil companies are pillaging Alberta's natural resources, robbing freshwater from the Athabasca River to make giant lakes of toxic sludge that are killing wildlife and poisoning local communities," said Mike Hudema, a tar sands campaigner with Greenpeace.
"Today we brought our message to the perpetrators of this environmental crime with a clear message to put the brakes on the tar sands," Hudema said.
The tar sands use more water than any other Alberta user. Current projects are licensed to remove more than 450 million cubic meters of water from the Athabasca River each year, about two and a half times the amount of water used by the city of Calgary each year.
After use, the water is so contaminated with toxic chemicals that it is stored in toxic tailings ponds so large that they can be seen from space.
With today's demonstration, the Greenpeacers targeted the same sludgy six-square-kilometer tailings pond where 500 ducks drowned in April, despite environmental regulations that require Syncrude to have wildlife deterrents in place.
"We take a lot of pride in having systems in place to prevent birds from landing on settling basins and storage ponds," Syncrude's Katinas said at the time. "So we're very saddened and sorry that this occurred."
It was the first time a large flock of birds landed on a settling basin in Syncrude's 30 years of operation, Katinas said.
Syncrude uses propane-fired noisemakers to deter birds from entering the settling ponds and they had already been deployed on all other ponds by April 28, the date the birds died. But Syncrude says extreme winter weather conditions had delayed the deployment of the noisemakers on the Aurora Settling Basin.
After an investigation, Alberta is still deciding whether or not to charge Syncrude under the province's environmental laws.
The Syncrude tar sands facility lies about five hours drive north of Edmonton, Alberta. (Photo courtesy Dominion Blog)
Greenpeace says tar sands pollution also has been associated with embryonic deformity and death of fish in the Athabasca River.
The tar sands are taking their toll on the health of the area's human residents too, Greenpeace and indigenous leaders believe.
Elevated levels of rare cancers have been reported in the First Nation community of Fort Chipewyan, downstream of the tar sands production site. Elders in the community of some 1,200 people say residents fell ill after production started near their homes on the southwestern end of Lake Athabasca.
In May, the Alberta Cancer Board and Health Canada promised a "comprehensive" study into the high incidences of colon, liver, blood and bile-duct cancers reported in Fort Chipewyan.
"For dozens of Alberta communities, the Athabasca River is their lifeline and when it is threatened, the health and the way of life of those communities is put at risk," said Greenpeace Tar Sands Campaigner Heather Milton-Lightening.
"Our activists feel that the risk these communities face daily is far more significant than the risk we took today," she said. "If the government refuses to stand up for their rights, we will."
Tar sands production contributes to global warming, the activists believe. Greenpeace said today that greenhouse gases from the tar sands are roughly equal to the emissions of all the cars on the road in Canada.
Boreal forests, wetlands and wildlife are being wiped out by the tar sands, the campaigners warn. "An area the size of Vancouver Island has already been devastated for tar sands oil. If current runaway development is allowed to proceed unchecked, an area as big as the state of Florida could be destroyed," the group said today in a statement.
Greenpeace is calling for no new approvals for tar sands projects as a first step. They group also wants assurances that no new tailings ponds will be built or existing ponds expanded, and that all existing ponds will be cleaned up and reclaimed.
Finally, the activists say stiffer penalties should be implemented for oil companies that fail to meet environmental regulations.
The Syncrude Project is a joint venture operated by Syncrude Canada Ltd. and owned by Canadian Oil Sands Limited, ConocoPhillips Oilsands Partnership II, Imperial Oil Resources, Mocal Energy Limited, Murphy Oil Company Ltd., Nexen Oil Sands Partnership, and Petro-Canada Oil and Gas.
Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2008