National Geographic : 2009 Mar
oor and is studded with pine trees. e dike has leaked in the past, and in 2007 a modeling study done by hydrogeologists at the University of Waterloo estimated that 45,000 gallons a day of contaminated water could be reaching the river. Suncor is now in the process of reclaiming Pond 1, piping some tailings to another pond, and replacing them with gypsum to consolidate the tailings. By 2010, the company says, the sur- face will be solid enough to plant trees on. Last summer it was still a blot of beige mud streaked with black bitumen and dotted with orange plastic scarecrows that are supposed to dissuade birds from landing and killing themselves. THE ALBERTA GOVERNMENT asserts that the river is not being contaminated---that anything found in the river or in its delta, at Lake Athabasca, comes from natural bitumen seeps. e river cuts right through the oil sands downstream of the mines, and as our chopper zoomed along a few feet above it, McEachern pointed out several places where the riverbank was black and the water oily. " ere is an increase in a lot of metals as you move downstream," he said. " at s natural--- it s weathering of the geology. ere s mercury in the sh up at Lake Athabasca---we ve had an advisory there since the 1990s. ere are PAHs in the sediments in the delta. ey re there because the river has eroded through the oil sands." Independent scientists, to say nothing of peo- ple who live downstream of the mines in the First Nations community of Fort Chipewyan, on Lake Athabasca, are skeptical. "It s inconceiv- able that you could move that much tar and have no e ect," says Peter Hodson, a sh toxicologist at Queen s University in Ontario. An Environ- ment Canada study did in fact show an e ect on sh in the Steepbank River, which ows past a Suncor mine into the Athabasca. Fish near the mine, Gerald Tetreault and his colleagues found when they caught some in 1999 and 2000, showed ve times more activity of a liver enzyme that breaks down toxins---a widely used measure of exposure to pollutants---as did sh near a natural bitumen seep on the Steepbank. "The thing that angers me, " says David In the distance steam and smoke and gas flames belched from the stacks of the Syn- crude and Suncor upgraders---"dark satanic mills" inevitably come to mind, but they're a riveting sight all the same.