Visiting the world's most polluted places

Trucks carry oil-laden sand near Fort McMurray, Alberta (Jeff McIntosh/Associated Press)

First aired on Eyeopener (08/06/12)

Okay, let's say you're going to have a week off for a vacation. Where do you want to go? A resort retreat? Perhaps a stay in cottage country? How about doing what writer Andrew Blackwell did and visit some of the most polluted places on Earth?

In his new book, Visit Sunny Chernobyl and Other Adventures in the World's Most Polluted Places, Blackwell chronicles his journeys to cities and regions that have reputations for being environmentally unfriendly and, frankly, undesirable places to see. This includes the aforementioned Chernobyl nuclear disaster site, the Chinese city of Linfen and Alberta's oil sands.

Blackwell got the idea after a surprising trip to India.

"I was on vacation doing some of your more regular site-seeing you might do. I saw the Taj Mahal and so on, and then kind of by accident, visiting the friend of a friend, I ended up in a city called Kanpur, which had just been named India's most polluted city by the government at the time, and it definitely lived up to that name," Blackwell said in a recent interview on Calgary's Eyeopener recently.

"It had a lot of smog, a lot of problems with the river, a lot of sewage and toxic waste. But I couldn't help noticing that, aside from that admittedly major caveat, it was not a bad town and I really enjoyed my time there, enjoyed the people I met, and definitely didn't have to worry about being crowded out by other tourists. I just had this realization that these environmental hotspots must be this huge untapped source of great vacation destinations."

So what did he think of the oil sands near the city of Fort McMurray?

visit.jpg"It's a really interesting place. One thing that really struck me is that there's so much talk about the oil sands, so much militant ambivalence about the oil sands...[but] when you're there, they're actually quite hard to see in person. Even the oil-sands bus tour, which is run by Suncor, they don't actually show you the mines. At first I found it kind of frustrating," Blackwell said. "It's one of the great monuments, I think, of our civilization in some way, but you can't go for a hike in it. I ended up chartering a little plane so I could get a look from the air, which is really the best way to see them anyway."

Some might interpret Blackwell's comment of the oil sands being a "great monument" as him being supportive of the industry, but he says he's not writing about these places to make a political statement. In fact, he's wanted to avoid the political perspective. He wanted to write about the people there. What's it like for them to live in one of the world's most controversial places? Where's a good place to get lunch in Fort McMurray?

"So to me, the real thing I took away from it was that these places are really worth caring about, not only because they're environmental horror stories, but because they're places people live," he said. "And maybe because they have these challenges, they're even more worth caring about, you know?"