Alberta is slowly poisoning its next-door neighbor, Saskatchewan. The wheat province's northern Lake District is subject to heavy fallouts of acid rain emanating from Alberta's oil sands plants, coal-fired power stations, and petrochemical and natural gas processing plants. Several thousand tons of sulfur dioxide spewed out daily by tall chimney stacks around Alberta are deposited in Saskatchewan's lakes, waterways, forests, and farmlands. The acidity problem there will increase proportionately in the future as more generating facilities and oil-sands, heavy-oil, and other industrial plants are built here.
On a clear day the yellowish ribbon of pollutants can be seen stretching for miles over the remote countryside. It's the visible residue of the energy and other raw materials burned and processed to keep the Alberta economy humming.
Prevailing winds and air currents invariably carry the sulfur dioxide into Saskatchewan. Sulfur dioxide combined with nitrogen creates acid rain. At times, through quirks of nature, Alberta's aerial garbage goes as far east as Ontario, or, swirling around, it simply precipitates in the province itself.
Alberta's Peace River country 200 miles to northwest is now a frequent recipient of acid rain generated in the Fort McMurray area -- some 250 miles to the east. But normally the pollution would be precipitated to the east of the Alberta- Saskatchewan border.
Dr. Ted Hammer, of the department of biology at the University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon campus, said in an interview that numerous lakes in the geographic heartland of the province will be dead by the turn of the century.
The amount of sulfur released into the air is simply staggering. Alberta's two commercial oil sands plants give out a combined 600 tons of sulfur every day of operations. Most of Alberta's 160 gas processing plants release varying amounts of sulfur, depending on processing capacity. Power plants using coal as boiler fuel are rated as being at last twice as bad as oil-sands plants from the point of view of environmental hazards.
Most scientists admit that the issue of acid rains sweeping from Alberta plants across the prairies will soon become a "political hot potato."
Unlike the Alberta lands and other parts of the West covered by ancient deposits of glacial drift, northern Saskatchewan's lakes nestle in the solid Precambrian shield. They have virtually no natural resistance to acidity.
The lakes and water courses now being poisoned have immense recreational value and form the backbone of Saskatchewan's tourist industry. Moreover, fishing is a major source of food for Saskatchewan's native people (Indians and Eskimos).
Dr. George Lesko, director for environmental affairs for Syncrude Canada Ltd. , said in an interview that though there "is certainly a problem in the making, the level of current emissions, from the oil sands plants in particular, poses no serious environmental hazard."
Several Calgary environmental experts contacted are divided on the acid rain threat, especially to Saskatchewan, and what might be done to reduce emissions to a more acceptable level. Alberta has some of the world's most stringent air quality regulations.
Still, it's considered impossible to eliminate sulfur dioxide emissions altogether, for both technical and financial reasons.About 97 percent of the sulfur is now recovered in tail gases at most plants. Yet more plants will mean several thousand tons more of solid particles being released into the atmosphere. One company environmental planner says, "You are going to have sulfur dioxide pollution and in turn an acid rain problem as long as you insist on having an industry."
A provincial-federal study is under way to take a closer look at the acid rain menace, and its report is expected in the spring. Most Saskatchewan and local industry experts say that Alberta "is not too concerned" about the problem , mainly because the pollution "gets blown away."