To appreciate the world-class impact of the tar sands on the globe's third-largest watershed, it's instructive to look first at the hardwood forests of Appalachia.
That's where the coal industry has practiced an unconventional mining technique known as mountaintop removal since the 1980s. The industry swears that the innovation is cheaper and safer than digging underground.
Mountaintop removal and open-pit bitumen mining are classic forms of strip mining, with a few key differences.
In mountaintop removal, the company first scrapes off the trees, then it blasts up to eight hundred feet off the top of mountains as ancient as the 140-million-year-old Himalayas. (In West Virginia alone, industry goes through three million pounds of dynamite every day.) Massive earth movers then push the rock into river valleys. Finally, giant shovels scoop out thin layers of coal. Electrical consumers as far afield as Ontario and Washington, D.C., keep their dishwashers running and their iPods charged with coal-fired electricity powered by mountaintop removal.
In the tar sands, companies specialize in forest-top removal. First they clear-cut up to 200,000 trees, then they drain all the bogs, fens and wetlands. Unlike in Appalachia, companies don't throw the soil and rock (what the industry calls "overburden") into nearby rivers or streams. Instead, they use the stuff to construct walls for the tar ponds, the world's largest impoundments of toxic waste.
As earth-destroying economies, mountaintop removal and bitumen mining have few peers in their role as water abusers.
No U.S. government agency considered the cumulative impact of mountaintop removal on Appalachian rivers and streams until 1998, when a lawsuit by one devastated community forced the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to tally up the damage.
The EPA published its damning findings in a series of studies, despite massive interference by the coal-friendly administration of George W. Bush. In an area encompassing most of eastern Kentucky, southern West Virginia, western Virginia, and parts of Tennessee, mountaintop removal smothered or damaged 1,200 miles of headwater streams between 1985 and 2001. (Headwater streams bring life and energy to a forest.)
The tar sands have already created a similar footprint in the Mackenzie River Basin, which protects and makes one-fifth of Canada's fresh water.
Throughout the southern half of the basin, bitumen mining destroys wetlands, drains entire watersheds, guzzles groundwater, and withdraws Olympic amounts of surface water from the Athabasca and Peace rivers.
A large pulp mill industry struggles along in the wake of the oil patch, and a nascent nuclear industry threatens to become another water thief in the basin.
To date, no federal or provincial agency has done a cumulative impact study evaluating the industry's footprint on boreal wetlands and rivers.
However, Environment Canada knows that a day of reckoning is coming.
Briefing notes for senior officials at the department obtained by journalist Mike de Souza warned in 2006 that "the lack of a proper assessment of the cumulative effects associated with these projects could result in legal challenges of federal and provincial approvals."
Two years later, a federal court judge, responding to a lawsuit launched by four environmental groups, found that the environmental assessment of Imperial's massive Kearl project was so flawed that the Department of Fisheries and Oceans temporarily withdrew the project's water permit. The federal cabinet quickly reissued the permit, but more legal water challenges seem as inevitable as rising oil prices.
This excerpt from Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent, reprinted with permission, continues tomorrow with a look at the tar sands water barrons.