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    Canada's Tar Sands Are Bleeding Toxic Mercury

    Written by

    Brian Merchant

    Senior Editor

    The tar sands project in Alberta. Image: Wikimedia

    There's a reason that Canada's Alberta tar sands project has become the world's most controversial energy project—its sheer size and capacity to pollute is already legendary among environmentalists. The deforestation, the carbon pollution, the waste pits; the carnage it's carved out in the once-pristine arboreal forest is visible from space. Given our advances in clean energy and faith in technology, it's the polar opposite of what most of us want the future of fuel to look like.

    The fuel source of the future, after all, shouldn't hemorrhage toxic mercury pollution throughout a 11,000 square mile radius. Canada's oil sands project does.

    A recent report from Environment Canada, detailed in the Calgary Herald, reveals that in a huge area (19,000 square km) surrounding the infamous extraction project, mercury levels are 16 times higher than typical background levels. Mercury, of course, is highly toxic and dangerous to both wildlife and humans in too-high doses. 

    "Mercury can bioaccumulate in living creatures and chronic exposure can cause brain damage. It is such a concern that Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq signed an international treaty in October pledging Canada to further reduce releases to the environment," the Herald explains. "... they say the mercury is 'the number one concern' when it comes to the metal toxins generated by oilsands operations. It is also a major worry for aboriginal and environmental groups concerned about the oilsands’ impact on fishing, hunting and important wildlife staging areas downstream of the oilsands."

    The government scientists claim that the mercury levels are nonetheless lower than other known fossil fuel extraction projects. Yet they're still extremely concerned. They found that mercury levels in bird eggs throughout the region “exceeded the lower toxicity threshold,” and are worried that the mercury will contaminate lakes and other biomes. 

    Researchers aren't sure as to the precise source of the pollution—in the past, emissions from extraction machinery, open pit mines, and exposed coke piles have been major sources, and all are in effect here. 

    In the US, opposition to the tar sands project focuses on the Keystone XL, the 1,700 mile pipeline that would carry the oil to the Gulf Coast for refining. Environmentalists and climatologists here call it a "carbon bomb" that would speed catastrophic climate change—but this latest report is a reminder of the large-scale destruction already taking place on Canadian soil (and if the government gets its way, would continue even further). It's been called the "most destructive project on Earth," and this alarming new scourge of mercury reminds us why.