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Thursday, June 01, 2006

Canada Pays Environmentally for U.S. Oil Thirst

FORT MCMURRAY, Alberta -- Huge mines here turning tarry sand into cash for Canada and oil for the United States are taking an unexpectedly high environmental toll, sucking water from rivers and natural gas from wells and producing large amounts of gases linked to global warming.

The digging -- into an area the size of Maryland and Virginia combined -- has proliferated at gold-rush speed, spurred by high oil prices, new technology and an unquenched U.S. thirst for the fuel. The expansion has presented ecological problems that experts thought they would have decades to resolve.

Major companies -- faced with tougher prospects for developing big new oil fields around the world -- are doing what was once unthinkable: sinking billions of dollars into projects to wring oil out of deposits of petroleum buried amid sand and clay.

"The river used to be blue. Now it's brown. Nobody can fish or drink from it. The air is bad. This has all happened so fast," said Elsie Fabian, 63, an elder in a native Indian community along the Athabasca River, a wide, meandering waterway once plied by fur traders. "It's terrible. We're surrounded by the mines."

From her home on the bluff of the river, she can see billowing steam rising from a vast strip mine 10 miles away. There, almost 200 feet below what was once a forest, giant machines cleave the earth into a cratered moonscape. Immense shovels plunge into the ground, wresting out massive chunks. Trucks the size of houses prowl the pit. They deliver the black soil to clanking conveyers and vats that steam the tar from the sand.
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