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News >  Idaho

Moscow group tours Alberta tar sands

An aerial photo shows a tar sands mine facility near Fort McMurray in Alberta in 2011. (Associated Press)
An aerial photo shows a tar sands mine facility near Fort McMurray in Alberta in 2011. (Associated Press)
Anthony Kuipers Moscow-Pullman Daily News (Moscow, Idaho)

Six people from Moscow, Idaho, spent a weekend this past summer getting an up-close look at the Alberta tar sands, the destination point for the controversial megaloads that have passed through the Northwest, including Moscow.

On Saturday, those people shared their story of that weekend during a presentation in Moscow’s 1912 Center sponsored by several environmental groups, including the Palouse Environmental Sustainability Coalition.

“It is out of sight, out of mind and people have to understand what’s going on up there,” Dan Rathmann said about the tar sands.

Rathmann and the rest of the group traveled to Canada in July to take part in a “healing walk,” a tour of the tar sands facilities alongside members of local First Nations groups.

The tour spanned about 8 miles near the town of Fort McMurray, where the facilities are located. There they got to see the oil facilities and learn about the extraction and mining of bitumen, the substance that is eventually processed into synthetic crude oil. They also heard from tribe members about how the operations are affecting their livelihood and the environment.

Anne Remaley, of PESC, showed slides comparing what Fort McMurray looked like before mining operations began there and what it looks like now. What was once a lush, green landscape with an abundance of trees is now stripped down to dirt pathways crawling with mining vehicles.

The contrasting photos may seem startling to most, Remaley said, but not for oil companies that see the environmental alteration as a profitable venture.

“There’s a real disconnect, because for them, production is what it’s all about,” she said.

Bitumen is extracted from the ground in two ways, she said. Open pit mining is one method. The other is pumping steam into the ground to force the melted bitumen to the surface. The site produces about 900,000 barrels of bitumen a day, Remaley said.

Remaley said the residue from these processes is deposited into what’s called tailing ponds that have leaked millions of liters of toxic waste into the ground. The nearby Athabasca river is also polluted.

Remaley said the group learned there has been a 30 percent rise in cancers in the native people living downstream from the tar sands since mining operations began. Rathmann’s wife, Pat, said they can no longer use water from the wells. They also can’t fish for food because more and more of the native fish are being found with tumors.

Helen Yost, from Wild Idaho Rising Tide, said it’s all the more reason to protest the megaloads that come through the region. Megaload trucks passed through Moscow in November, and Yost called for further activism to prevent more from making their journey to Canada.

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