Wednesday, January 29, 2014

22. Time Capsule 2050 and HR 1896

Mark Lee almost had a head-on collision on his motorcycle with an empty 18-wheeler while passing a fully loaded one on the highway leading north from Edmonton to Fort McMurray, Alberta province, Canada - the Tar Sands Capital of the World. The two-lane highway was notorious for head-on collisions. He was glad that Fort McMurray was just minutes away, because he could smell it.

"Now that you took your life in your own hands riding a motorcycle up to here, you can relax," said the young pilot of the Cessna 172 Mark had chartered for two hours with a smile.  "The flight won't be half as dangerous, though you have chosen a blustery day for it."

"Any risk you take, I'll take," said Mark, returning the smile.  Then he added, "What I would like to do is to take aerial photos and videos of the six mines currently in operation. Could you chart a route for three mines out, three mines in?"
"No problem. This is what most of my flights are about anyway, other than straight in and out hauls to and from Albion Mine's own jetliner-capable airport, which we will over-fly as well."

Even with ample picture-and-video-previewing and article-prereading about the Alberta tar sands, Mark was still blown away by the extent of the devastation now laid out beneath his eyes. But he had introduced himself as an executive of a Chinese investment firm interested in investing major Yuan in this what the environmental movement refered to as "the most environmentally destructive single industrial development in the world", so he behaved in a business-like manner.

"So, tell me what we are looking at," he said to the pilot through his headset once the plane was airborne.

"Well, we'll see several things. First, what you see in the far horizon to our left and right are the green stretches, which are the original boreal forests. A lot of these forest overlie thick horizontal deposits of bitumin, which is essentially a tarry substance containing oil. After we have mapped out the deposit by spot drilling, we will strip the forest to expose the tar-soaked sand. We then send in the heavy machinery to dig out the tar sands and transport them to a first stage refinery where the crude oil in the tar is liquified and drained out by means of super-heated steam and specific solvents. What flows out is call dilbit, or diluted bitumin, which is transported via high pressure pipelines to distant refineries to be turned into various products, front and centre being gasoline and diesel. The superheated steam is generated by heating the water pumped from the Athabasca River, the river right beneath us, under pressure. The fuel for this is natural gas piped in from as far as Russia. All in all, this entire development of the six current mines, plus maybe another dozen or so coming on line over the next decade, is the greatest resource extraction industry the world has ever seen."

"So, you have to input a lot of energy to get the energy out?"

"Yes, we do. About one to one."

"You mean you put in as much energy to extract an equal amount of energy?"

"More or less."

"And what happens to the waste water?"

"It is discharged into 'tailings ponds'. You'll see quite a few up ahead.  There, at 10 o'clock, is one."

"You call that a pond? It looks like a lake. Could you circle it a couple of times, once clockwise and once anti-clockwise please."
"No problem."

Mark was nothing short of bedazzled by the multi-hued sheens of oil covering the entire surface of the "pond" easily the size of ten football fields, and the black smudges lining the water's edge, and the brown streaks where the "pond" overflowed on to the surrounding land, all slowly oozing back to the river from whence the water had come..

"What kind of chemicals are in the oil floating on the surface?"

"PAHs, mainly - Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons."

"Are they harmful to human health?"

"I'm afraid so. They are proven carcinogens.  And concentrated enough to kill any water fowl landing into them.  You see them flying in, but you seldom if ever see them flying back out."

"Are these 'ponds' lined?" he asked, already aware of the answer.

"Not that I know of."

"So the waste water just seeps into the ground? Into the aquifer?"

"I believe so."

"An eventually, they will seep back into the river?"

"Eventually, I'm sure."

"What is downstream of the river?"

"Lake Athabasca."

"And what happens to Lake Athabasca?"

"Deformed fish, I hear."

"Are there people living in the Athabascan watershed?"

"The Chipewyan native people, centered at 'Fort Chip', and, yeah, I know what you are driving at.  They do eat the fish, and they do have a high cancer rate."

"What is being done for them?"

"Strange you should ask.  Well, the first thing that happened was that they fired the doctor who found out about the cancer epidemic.  The second thing is that they were kind enough to build for the Chipewyan people a cancer ward."

All the while, as they questioned and answered back and forth, Mark snapped hundreds of aerial photos, and almost two hours of aerial video.

The next day, Mark called a media conference in Edmonton, where he showed a large thick-walled aluminum cylinder with a screw-top. He displayed to the TV cameras and newspaper photographers the various items to go into the cylinder, including his own two books, newspaper clippings, DVDs, memory sticks, external hard-drives, a 10" laptop computer, a large battery, solar panels and a charger. The latest addition was a flash drive containing all the pictures and videos he had taken the day before.  Taped on to the lid of the laptop was a laminate sheet of directions showing how the computer is to be operated. The exterior of the cylinder bore the logo [TIME CAPSULE 2050].  He would bury it "somewhere in North America".

He said, "Our children's children will be straddled with the heavy environmental, economic and social burden we have laid on their backs.  They are the ones who will have to pay for our debts.  They have the right to know what atrocities have been committed by us before they were born, and what sincere efforts have been made to save them from ourselves," said Mark in an interview.

Within days, he received a phone call from Senator John Buchanan (D-MI), who said to him, "Dr. Lee, I have in mind to sponsor a bill to ban tar sands oil from entering the United States, and to shelve all pipeline expansion plans once and for all.  My state is still bearing the scars of the Kalamazoo spill.  I would very much appreciate it if you could testify at the congressional hearing if and when I launch this bill."

This said bill eventually acquired the number of HR 1896.

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