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Walking the Walk

By Arij Riahi and Tim McSorley / The Dominion

By Arij Riahi and Tim McSorley / The Dominion

FORT MCMURRAY, AB—In the heart of Canada’s oil country, the booming town of Fort McMurray—casually dubbed Fort McMoney—is slowly becoming one of Alberta’s largest cities. From 2006 to 2012, the city grew by 53 per cent, going from a population of 47,705 to 72,994—far exceeding the growth of Alberta as a whole. This doesn’t count the “non-permanent residents” who are simply in town to work; including them, the population balloons to 112,215.

Nearby, however, Indigenous nations are struggling for cultural survival. The tar sands project continues to expand its destructive footprint on the traditional territories of the Beaver Lake Cree Nation, Fort McMurray First Nation and Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, among others. For them, opposition to the industrial project is not an environmental concern or a left-leaning pet project. It is a matter of human survival.

“I never did look at myself as a campaigner or an organizer, or an activist or an environmentalist. None of those things,” said Crystal Lameman, a member of the Beaver Lake Cree Nation who now works as the Alberta Climate and Energy Campaigner for the Sierra Club of Canada Prairie Chapter. “And I can say I still don’t look at myself that way. You know, it’s just doing what I need to for the sacrifices that our ancestors endured to ensure that we have that ability to utilize the land, to sustain ourselves.”

Lameman, a mother of two in her mid-30s, has been working since 2012 to raise awareness among members of her community, located in the heart of northern Alberta’s tar sands territory, about the necessity—and possibilities—of fighting back against the tar sands.

These thoughts are echoed a further 300 kilometres north, by Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN). Located on the shores of Lake Athabasca, fed by the Athabasca River and downstream from the majority of the tar sands development, the ACFN has also been fighting against the impact of industrial pollutants on its land.

For the past four years, the ACFN and the Keepers of the Athabasca (a group of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people fighting for the protection of the massive Athabasca watershed, which feeds into the Athabasca River) have organized the Healing Walk. It was started as a way to bridge the divide between activists and residents of the area—many of whom work for the tar sands—who are concerned but are not interested (or able) to engage in traditional protests. This year, on July 5, hundreds from across Canada, including dozens from the tar sands area, gathered to walk through the tar sands and witness its impacts.

“I am labeled by government officials and the industry that I am an eco-activist. I am not an eco-activist. I am a user of the land,” said Chief Adam at the Healing Walk. “Environmentalists like to see the beauty of the landscape. I was brought up in the bush. I utilize and survive off the land. You may go in the bush and look at the scenery…I go in the bush and harvest the meat, and harvest the fish and whatever else I have to to feed my family. That is the difference between you and I.”

peer-reviewed study released in 2010 by the Firelight Group Research Cooperative, which works with First Nations on community-based research projects, found that tar sands development has already severely limited access to First Nations’ traditional territory.

That link to the land is essential for Indigenous communities, said Lionel Lepine, a father of two who also lives in Fort Chipewyan. “One day, we’re going to be so damn rich [off the tar sands] that there will be nothing to buy. We’re going to be dead,” he said during a discussion at the Healing Walk. “And my poor great-great-grandchildren are going to suffer the consequences.”

Losing access to the land doesn’t only mean losing the the possibility of a subsistence way of life—including the ability to hunt or fish—but in some cases it means not even being sure what kind of development, or destruction, is taking place.

In late June, the Alberta government reported that an oil spill had taken place at the Primrose tar sands operation of Canadian Natural Resource Limited. The operations are located in the Cold Lake Air Weapons Range (CLAWR) in Cold Lake, Alberta, in Beaver Lake Cree Nation territory.

Lameman went to the site after getting news of the spill, but was initially rebuffed. Officials at CLAWR later changed their position and promised Lameman she could enter the area if the oil company agreed to let her in. Her calls to the company were not returned, she said. It took pressure from journalists and an eventual leak from an anonymous government scientist for the full extent of the spill to be revealed publicly in the Toronto Star in mid-July, including that 4,500 barrels of bitumen had so far been cleaned up from four different sites.

“To me, the response I got is a slap in the face of what it means to be in direct violation of our inherent constitutionally protected treaty rights,” she said. “It was really, really hard to actually feel that and experience that, and it’s not something I ever want to have to experience again, but I’m sure I will.”

Many Indigenous communities across the country are subject to such a disproportionate quantity of pollution that they have become infamous toxic hotspots. In Fort Chipewyan, cases of rare untreatable cancers have been documented since the early 2000s. But people living in the communities have been feeling the impacts long before any studies were commissioned.

“Given what’s going on over there—all the pollution—we call our town ground zero, because ultimately we feel the impacts of tar sands development first and foremost, and our people are dying,” Lepine said during the Healing Walk. “You know, I come from a town which only contains 1,200 people. And the cancer rate there is sky high in the last 10 years, beyond belief. The elders knew about this 40 years ago. When industry first came in, the impacts on our lands became pretty obvious, and as industry came in people started to die.”

For years, First Nations people, scientists, doctors and environmentalists have raised the alarm about the health impacts of the tar sands. It was only this past winter, however, that an investigation into the health concerns of First Nations communities living downstream, such as the Athabasca Chipewyan, was finally announced. The study will be led by the University of Calgary, with federal and provincial funding. The investigation follows a 2009 report, by Alberta Health Services, that showed higher rates of cancer in the community than is found in the rest of the Alberta population.

Since January, two separate reports have found Alberta’s lakes and groundwater are being polluted more than previously realized. The first, from Queen’s University and Environment Canada, showed high levels of carcinogens created by the tar sands extraction process in lakes up to 90 kilometres from tar sands extraction sites. The second, produced by 19 scientists from both the federal and provincial governments, confirmed ongoing seepage from tailings ponds into groundwater.

Tar sands impacts aren’t just felt in northern Alberta, but at every stage of the refining process, including in the southernmost reaches of the country. In Sarnia, Ontario, over 60 petrochemical facilities are concentrated in a 25-kilometre radius. At least three of these refineries, including Suncor and Imperial Oil who are active in Fort McMurray, process tar sands bitumen. The area is known as Canada’s Chemical Valley. It is also the home of the Aamjiwnaang First Nation.

“Growing up in this community, I experienced a lot of health issues, including asthma attacks, skin issues,” said Vanessa Gray, a youth organizer and member of the Aamjiwnaang First Nation who also spoke at the Healing Walk. “There’s a lot of cancer in my family where I grew up, [we were] going to a lot of funerals…it happened all the time.”

Gray’s concerns are well documented. In 2011, the World Health Organization described Sarnia’s air quality as the worst in Canada. Studies have also found alarmingly high rates of cancer, respiratory illnesses and reproductive disorders in the area, as cited in a 2007 report from Ecojustice.

For many Indigenous communities, the fight against the tar sands is a fight for their quality of life. “We’re all human beings first and foremost. We all drink water. So this involves everyone,” stressed Crystal Lameman. “This isn’t about race, colour or creed, this is about our lives.”

Ultimately, it is about the future. “I’m so worried about my kids,” said Lepine. “You know from the words of our elders, they’re our future, let’s support them. Let’s keep them alive, Let’s keep our kids alive. Let’s fight these guys. Let’s fight them harder, let’s take the gloves off.”

Arij Riahi is a legally-trained writer based in Montreal. Arij is at www.twitter.com/arijactually. Tim McSorley is an editor with the Media Co-op and freelance journalist living in Montreal.

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Originally posted by The Dominion here.

 

Why Do Protesters Against Egregious Environmental and Financial Misconduct Get Arrested, But Not Corporate Perpetrators?

By Mark Karlin / Truth-Out

By Mark Karlin / Truth-Out

It’s sadly what we’ve come to expect: advocates for saving the planet — and present and future lives with it — and those who protest financial crimes and improprieties get arrested, charged, and often serve jail time, but those responsible among the corporate and financial elite go free.

In this case, the headline on mlive.com (as in Michigan) that came to our attention reads, “Four protesters arrested at Enbridge pipeline construction site charged with felony.” 

Enbridge is a massive intertnational oil and gas pipeline company (based in Canada) that, as noted in a study by the Polaris Institute, fesses up to large scale environmental damage:

Thousands of litres of dangerous fluids are released from the company ’s pipelines and holding tanks into the environment each year.

According to Enbridge’s own data, between 1999 and 2010 , across all of the company’s operations there were 804 spills that released 161,475 barrels of hydrocarbons into the environment.

This amounts to approximately half of the oil that spilled from the oil tanker the Exxon Valdez after it struck a rock in Prince William Sound, Alaska in 1988.

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China’s Bad Earth

By Josh Chin and Brian Spegele / The Wall Street Journal

By Josh Chin and Brian Spegele / The Wall Street Journal

In Dapu, a rain-drenched rural outpost in the heart of China’s grain basket, a farmer grows crops that she wouldn’t dare to eat.

A state-backed chemicals factory next to her farm dumps wastewater directly into the local irrigation pond, she says, and turns it a florescent blue reminiscent of antifreeze. After walking around in the rice paddies, some farmers here have developed unexplained blisters on their feet.

“Nothing comes from these plants,” says the farmer, pointing past the irrigation pond to a handful of stunted rice shoots. She grows the rice, which can’t be sold because of its low quality, only in order to qualify for payments made by the factory owners to compensate for polluting the area. But the amount is only a fraction of what she used to earn when the land was healthy, she says. The plants look alive, “but they’re actually dead inside.”

The experiences of these farmers in Dapu, in central China’s Hunan province, highlight an emerging and critical front in China’s intensifying battle with pollution. For years, public attention has focused on the choking air and contaminated water that plague China’s ever-expanding cities. But a series of recent cases have highlighted the spread of pollution outside of urban areas, now encompassing vast swaths of countryside, including the agricultural heartland.

Estimates from state-affiliated researchers say that anywhere between 8% and 20% of China’s arable land, some 25 to 60 million acres, may now be contaminated with heavy metals. A loss of even 5% could be disastrous, taking China below the “red line” of 296 million acres of arable land that are currently needed, according to the government, to feed the country’s 1.35 billion people.

Rural China’s toxic turn is largely a consequence of two trends, say environmental researchers: the expansion of polluting industries into remote areas a safe distance from population centers, and heavy use of chemical fertilizers to meet the country’s mounting food needs. Both changes have been driven by the rapid pace of urbanization in a country that in 2012, for the first time in its long history, had more people living in cities than outside of them.

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Rare-earth mining in China comes at a heavy cost for local villages

By Guardian Weekly / The Guardian

By Guardian Weekly / The Guardian

From the air it looks like a huge lake, fed by many tributaries, but on the ground it turns out to be a murky expanse of water, in which no fish or algae can survive. The shore is coated with a black crust, so thick you can walk on it. Into this huge, 10 sq km tailings pond nearby factories discharge water loaded with chemicals used to process the 17 most sought after minerals in the world, collectively known as rare earths.

The town of Baotou, in Inner Mongolia, is the largest Chinese source of these strategic elements, essential to advanced technology, from smartphones to GPS receivers, but also to wind farms and, above all, electric cars. The minerals are mined at Bayan Obo, 120km farther north, then brought to Baotou for processing.

The concentration of rare earths in the ore is very low, so they must be separated and purified, using hydro-metallurgical techniques and acid baths. China accounts for 97% of global output of these precious substances, with two-thirds produced in Baotou.

The foul waters of the tailings pond contain all sorts of toxic chemicals, but also radioactive elements such as thorium which, if ingested, cause cancers of the pancreas and lungs, and leukaemia. “Before the factories were built, there were just fields here as far as the eye can see. In the place of this radioactive sludge, there were watermelons, aubergines and tomatoes,” says Li Guirong with a sigh.

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It’s time to take our heads out of the tar sands

By Quebec delegation to Fort McMurray

By Quebec delegation to Fort McMurray

Local tragedies, such as the one in Lac Megantic, must not distract from the global tragedy which threatens us all.

We write today as witnesses, witnesses to an ecological and social disaster which words can scarcely describe: we have just returned from Fort McMurray, Alberta, the nerve-centre of the tar sands. Welcomed by the local Indigenous community and accompanied by hundreds of citizens from across North America, we walked through the heart of the largest industrial project on the planet. Some of us also visited the Suncor Oil facilities at that company’s invitation.

What we have seen and heard has left an indelible mark upon us. We return deeply saddened and angry. The extent of the devastation caused by this industry is obvious to anyone who sets eyes upon the place, and the numbers confirm this feeling. Each day, oil sands production releases 11 million litres of toxic water into our natural environment — 4 billion litres per year — and emits the equivalent, in greenhouse gas emissions, of 15 million cars.

This is to say nothing of the appalling social effects upon local populations. In some Indigenous communities in the region cancer rates have exploded, and now exceed the Canadian average by a staggering thirty per cent. Meanwhile, the industry has treated First Nations with complete contempt: the Beaver Lake Cree community, for example, has recorded no less than 20,000 violations of their territorial treaties. In many cases, as much as 80 per cent of the territory of Indigenous communities is inaccessible to them at one point or another of the year due to tar sands development. Just as it is here, the Indigenous peoples are the forgotten ones in these types of development projects.

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More than 2 million people killed by air pollution each year

Institute of Physics

Institute of Physics

Over two million deaths occur each year as a direct result of human-caused outdoor air pollution, a new study has found.

In addition, while it has been suggested that a changing climate can exacerbate the effects of air pollution and increase death rates, the study shows that this has a minimal effect and only accounts for a small proportion of current deaths related to air pollution.

The study, which has been published today, 12 July, in IOP Publishing’s journal Environmental Research Letters, estimates that around 470,000 people die each year because of human-caused increases in ozone.

It also estimates that around 2.1 million deaths are caused each year by human-caused increases in fine particulate matter (PM2.5) – tiny particles suspended in the air that can penetrate deep into the lungs, causing cancer and other respiratory disease.

Co-author of the study, Jason West, from the University of North Carolina, said: “Our estimates make outdoor air pollution among the most important environmental risk factors for health.  Many of these deaths are estimated to occur in East Asia and South Asia, where population is high and air pollution is severe.”

According to the study, the number of these deaths that can be attributed to changes in the climate since the industrial era is, however, relatively small. It estimates that a changing climate results in 1500 deaths due to ozone and 2200 deaths related to PM2.5 each year.

Climate change affects air pollution in many ways, possibly leading to local increases or decreases in air pollution. For instance, temperature and humidity can change the reaction rates which determine the formation or lifetime of a pollutant, and rainfall can determine the time that pollutants can accumulate.

Higher temperatures can also increase the emissions of organic compounds from trees, which can then react in the atmosphere to form ozone and particulate matter.

“Very few studies have attempted to estimate the effects of past climate change on air quality and health. We found that the effects of past climate change are likely to be a very small component of the overall effect of air pollution,” continued West.

In their study, the researchers used an ensemble of climate models to simulate the concentrations of ozone and PM2.5 in the years 2000 and 1850. A total of 14 models simulated levels of ozone and six models simulated levels of PM2.5.

Previous epidemiological studies were then used to assess how the specific concentrations of air pollution from the climate models related to current global mortality rates.

The researchers’ results were comparable to previous studies that have analysed air pollution and mortality; however, there was some variation depending on which climate model was used.

West added, “We have also found that there is significant uncertainty based on the spread among different atmospheric models.  This would caution against using a single model in the future, as some studies have done”.

From Friday 12 July, this paper can be downloaded from http://iopscience.iop.org/1748-9326/8/3/034005/article.

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Originally posted by Institute of Physics here.