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10 Things Canadians are Doing to Their Environment Right Now

by Rachael Bolte and Lauren Shepherd

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Piles of uncovered petroleum coke, a byproduct of upgrading tar sands oil to synthetic crude, sit at the Suncor Oil Sands Project. “Petcoke” is between 30 and 80 percent more carbon intense than coal per unit of weight. Image by Alex MacLean. Canada, 2014.

What you don’t know about the tar sands mining industry in Canada could devastate the environment.

Mining of tar sands (also known as oil sands) in the boreal forests of Canada’s Alberta Province is rarely visible to the public. Oil companies restrict access to facilities, and tree lines prevent even distant views. The controversial Keystone XL pipeline would pump refined oil from the tar sands mines into the United States. This past March, science journalist Dan Grossman and aerial photographer Alex MacLean traveled to Alberta. They made flights above the mines and interviewed people on the ground. Their work demonstrates the huge and destructive scale of  the mining. Their reporting uncovers evidence of large-scale pollution spread by the tar sands industry.

View more on the project here: The Big Picture: Alberta’s Oil Sands.

1. Alberta sits on top of the world’s third largest petroleum reserve (after Saudi Arabia and Venezuela) and the world’s largest deposit of extra-heavy crude oil, which covers an area the size of Florida.image

Image by oilsands.alberta.ca, 2013. 

2. More than 250 square of boreal forest has been cleared and mined or otherwise disturbed. As you read this, oil companies are clearing more land.image

Excavating bitumen at the Syncrude Mildred Lake mining site. Giant tires line traffic circle. Image by Alex MacLean. Canada, 2014.

3. Tar sands extraction activities currently only occupy a fraction of the Rhode Island sized region designated for strip mining. But production is expected to double by 2022.imageLarge blocks of sulphur, a byproduct of upgrading oil sands at Syncrude Mildred Lake site, near Ft. McMurray, Alberta, Canada. Image by Alex MacLean. Canada, 2014.

4. Oil companies use Caterpillar ultra class dump trucks (large enough to fit suburban starter home in the bucket) to clear the land.imageA Caterpillar 793F autonomous hauling truck deployed in Australia. Image by Caterpillar.com.

5. Alberta regulators claim that the environment will be returned to a ‘pristine’ state after mining is concluded. That will require cleanup of 190 billion gallons of water sitting in toxic settling ponds.

imageHot waste filling tailing pond, Suncor Mining Site, Alberta, CA. Image by Alex MacLean. Canada, 2014.

6. While oil company Suncor touts a successful ‘clean up’ of its first waste pond, critics say the project was a cover up: two feet of topsoil planted with shrubs covering a mountain of dry toxic tailings.

imageSurface oil on a tailing pond, Alberta, Canada. Image by Alex MacLean. Canada, 2014.

7. Contradicting assurances by regulators, Canadian government researchers have discovered that waste ponds are leaking into the Athabasca River. Native Americans, like Violet Clarke, say such pollution is making their traditional way of life impossible. (View video here.)

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Violet Clarke is a Cree Native American in the town of Anzac, about a half-hour drive from the mining boom town Fort McMurray. Video and text by Dan Grossman.

8. Alberta’s provincial government has confirmed an unusual number of cases of a rare cancer of the bile ducts in a community downstream of tar sands mining. However, the Chief Medical Officer of the province has chosen not to investigate further. (View video here.)

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The day we spoke, Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer had recently announced that cancer was unusually high in Fort Chip. But he said that no further study of the town was needed or would be undertaken by his agency. Video and text by Dan Grossman.

9. Officials charged with protecting energy resources and the interests of Canadians in Alberta are former executives of the oil companies they’re told to regulate.                                                                image

Gerry Protti is new head of the Alberta Energy Regulator. He was formerly president of Energy Policy Institute of Cananda, a non-profit listing the largest oil sands players in the country. Image by Desmog Canada. 

10. The Canadian government itself lobbies for the mining industry. It’s engaging in $24 million international marketing campaign to advertise Canadian oil and gas to business leaders and politicians. (View video here.)

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Video by oilsands.alberta.ca, 2010. 

If you want to learn more about this story and help support Grossman and MacLean’s reporting in Alberta, visit their Indiegogo campaign here. 

Olivia H at the Pulitzer Center and Scribe docu-shop getting a video portrait done.

Image by Dominic Bracco, via Instagram. Philadelphia, 2014. 
In 2013, Bracco reportedstories of young men and women from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, today, the murder capital of the world. Los Ninis: Mexico’s Lost Generation.

Olivia H at the Pulitzer Center and Scribe docu-shop getting a video portrait done.

Image by Dominic Bracco, via Instagram. Philadelphia, 2014.

In 2013, Bracco reportedstories of young men and women from Ciudad Juarez, Mexicotoday, the murder capital of the world. Los Ninis: Mexico’s Lost Generation.

Santiago, Chile. Official close of Michelle Bachelet’s presidential campaign in Santiago, Chile.

Image and text by Jon Lowenstein, via the New Yorker’s Instagram. Chile, 2013. 
Together, Pulitzer Center grantees, brothers Jon and Jeff Kelly Lowenstein have recently reported on Chile’s enduring rifts. 

Santiago, Chile. Official close of Michelle Bachelet’s presidential campaign in Santiago, Chile.

Image and text by Jon Lowenstein, via the New Yorker’s Instagram. Chile, 2013.

Together, Pulitzer Center grantees, brothers Jon and Jeff Kelly Lowenstein have recently reported on Chile’s enduring rifts

A street vendor sells chilli peppers on a busy street in Kathmandu, next to a line of campaign posters of a Maoist candidate and former first lady.

Image by Anup Kaphle, via Instagram. Nepal, 2014. 
Pulitzer Center grantee Anup Kaphle has most recently reported on young Nepalis seeking work overseas.

A street vendor sells chilli peppers on a busy street in Kathmandu, next to a line of campaign posters of a Maoist candidate and former first lady.

Image by Anup Kaphle, via Instagram. Nepal, 2014.

Pulitzer Center grantee Anup Kaphle has most recently reported on young Nepalis seeking work overseas.

Santiago, Chile. Election Day in Chile.

Image and text by Jon Lowenstein, via The New Yorker’s Instagram. Chile, 2013. 
Chile’s Enduring Rifts by Jon and Jeff Kelly Lowenstein.

Santiago, Chile. Election Day in Chile.

Image and text by Jon Lowenstein, via The New Yorker’s Instagram. Chile, 2013.

Chile’s Enduring Rifts by Jon and Jeff Kelly Lowenstein.

Santiago, Chile. Communist member shows off a pin next to a poster of one of their candidates. 

Image and text by Jon Lowenstein, via the New Yorker’s Instagram. Chile, 2013 

Santiago, Chile. Communist member shows off a pin next to a poster of one of their candidates. 

Image and text by Jon Lowenstein, via the New Yorker’s Instagram. Chile, 2013 

Ana Garay and Alexander Sanchez hang out in downtown Tegucigalpa. “They’ve been buying people for years,” Ana said when questioned about the election. 

Image by Dominic Bracco II, via The New Yorker’s Instagram. Honduras, 2013.

Ana Garay and Alexander Sanchez hang out in downtown Tegucigalpa. “They’ve been buying people for years,” Ana said when questioned about the election. 

Image by Dominic Bracco II, via The New Yorker’s Instagram. Honduras, 2013.

A student takes refuge in the brush as police clash with protesters earlier today.

Image by Dominic Bracco II, via the New Yorker Instagram. Honduras, 2013.
From the Pulitzer Center- supported project “Honduras: Aqui Vivimos.”

A student takes refuge in the brush as police clash with protesters earlier today.

Image by Dominic Bracco II, via the New Yorker Instagram. Honduras, 2013.

From the Pulitzer Center- supported project “Honduras: Aqui Vivimos.”

A worker burns electrical wires in order to extract the copper inside. The process is carried out in the open air in central Kolkata, resulting in highly toxic emissions being released into the surrounding air and soil. Workers have little to no protection. I’m in India this month documenting how the country is battling many forms of pollution.

Image by Sean Gallagher, via Instagram. India, 2013.
Gallagher’s 2013 Pulitzer Center sponsored project looks at the toll of dis-assembly for electronic goods.
Toxic Businesses: India’s Informal E-Waste Recyclers at Risk

A worker burns electrical wires in order to extract the copper inside. The process is carried out in the open air in central Kolkata, resulting in highly toxic emissions being released into the surrounding air and soil. Workers have little to no protection. I’m in India this month documenting how the country is battling many forms of pollution.

Image by Sean Gallagher, via Instagram. India, 2013.

Gallagher’s 2013 Pulitzer Center sponsored project looks at the toll of dis-assembly for electronic goods.

Toxic Businesses: India’s Informal E-Waste Recyclers at Risk

Russian cemetery, detail (4 of 4).

Image by Brendan Hoffman, via Instagram. Russia, 2013. 
Hoffman, a Pulitzer Center grantee, focused on Russia’s Monotowns with journalist Anna Nemtsova.

Russian cemetery, detail (4 of 4).

Image by Brendan Hoffman, via Instagram. Russia, 2013.

Hoffman, a Pulitzer Center grantee, focused on Russia’s Monotowns with journalist Anna Nemtsova.