National Geographic : 2009 Mar
• had merged into a band of dust sweeping west across the devastated landscape. It was being sucked into the updraft of a storm cloud. In the distance steam and smoke and gas ames belched from the stacks of the Syncrude and Suncor upgraders---"dark satanic mills" inevi- tably come to mind, but they re a riveting sight all the same. From many miles away, you could smell the tarry stench. It stings your lungs when you get close enough. From the air, however, the mines fall away quickly. Skimming low over the river, startling a young moose that was fording a narrow chan- nel, a government biologist named Preston McEachern and I veered northwest toward the Birch Mountains, over vast expanses of scarcely disturbed forest. e Canadian boreal forest cov- ers two million square miles, of which around 75 percent remains undeveloped. e oil sands mines have so far converted over 150 square miles---a hundredth of a percent of the total area---into dust, dirt, and tailings ponds. Expan- sion of in situ extraction could a ect a much larger area. At Suncor s Firebag facility, north- east of the Millennium mine, the forest has not been razed, but it has been dissected by roads and pipelines that service a checkerboard of large clearings, in each of which Suncor extracts deeply buried bitumen through a cluster of wells. Environmentalists and wildlife biologists worry that the widening fragmentation of the forest, by timber as well as mineral companies, endangers the woodland caribou and other animals. " e boreal forest as we know it could be gone in a generation without major policy changes," says Steve Kallick, director of the Pew Boreal Campaign, which aims to protect 50 per- cent of the forest. McEachern, who works for Alberta Environ- ment, a provincial agency, says the tailings ponds are his top concern. e mines dump wastewater in the ponds, he explains, because they are not allowed to dump waste into the Athabasca, and because they need to reuse the water. As the thick, brown slurry gushes from the discharge pipes, the sand quickly settles out, building the dike that retains the pond; the residual bitumen oats to the top. e ne clay and silt particles, though, take several years to settle, and when they do, they produce a yogurt-like goop---the technical term is "mature fine tailings"---that is contaminated with toxic chemicals such as naphthenic acid and polycyclic aromatic hydro- carbons (PAH) and would take centuries to dry out on its own. Under the terms of their licenses, the mines are required to reclaim it somehow, but they have been missing their deadlines and still have not fully reclaimed a single pond. In the oldest and most notorious one, Suncor s Pond 1, the sludge is perched high above the river, held back by a dike of compacted sand that rises more than 300 feet from the valley Ronnie Campbell hauls whitefish from Lake Athabasca, downriver from Fort McMurray, to use as feed for his sled dogs. Locals say their catches are often covered in unusual red spots, and many no longer eat lake fish. While the cause of the spots is unclear, some believe toxic chemicals, such as those released during bitumen production, are leaching into Alberta's rivers and lakes.