Part Two:   Black gold fever

In part two of her river pilgrimage to the tar sands, Terry Dance-Bennink writes about the highway to hell, black gold fever in Fort McMurray, and the toxic tailings lakes.

The highway to hell

Highway 63 is weird – like nothing I’ve ever seen. We drove north for several hours on a straight flat road bordered with small stunted trees struggling to grow in marshy land. Pit toilets are the only rest areas. We didn’t see much sign of oil exploration because it’s hidden by the trees, but every once in a while we glimpsed ugly three-storey barracks housing oil workers. We’d been told that sniffer dogs roam the corridors each night to detect drugs.

Huge trucks, some of them two storeys high, rushed past us with escorts to halt traffic when needed. Pick-up trucks are the name of the game up here. Theo and I felt very small and conspicuous in our car with B.C. license plates. The infamous highway is being expanded into a four lane expressway, a sign the oil companies are here to stay. Fatigue, alcohol, drugs and notorious weather conditions resulted in 3,339 accidents and 93 deaths between 2006-10 (Oilsands Review, Sep. 2013).

We all breathed a sigh of relief when we entered Fort McMurray (Fort Crack according to some washroom graffiti). Our relief didn’t last long. We could feel the frenetic energy of the place and had to watch our step every moment to avoid being run down. The four lane highway buzzes with trucks 24/7. We saw men everywhere, huddled in small groups on corners, outside bars and restaurants, from all over the world, including Somalia and Newfoundland. As older women, we stood out in this testosterone-driven city filled with big toys for big boys.

A museum of human greed

We stopped at the Oil Sands Discovery Centre on the way into town. It’s an informative, slick propaganda tool designed by the oil industry, mainly for children. But I got to touch and feel bitumen in its original form – it’s a thick, sticky, hard substance, just like tar. We were shocked by the coloured map which shows Fort McMurray and Fort McKay surrounded by dozens of oil companies. Every inch of land is claimed. The map shows only 20% of the total industry – the surface mining operations that use giant trucks and shovels. The remaining 80% is secured through in situ drilling, a steam-driven process to secure oil deeper down.

The tar sands region is the size of Florida! How many Canadians know this? How many have seen it?

We climbed up on a two storey truck with the biggest tires I’d ever seen and sat in the driver’s seat watching video footage of a real operation on a Martian-like landscape. Every scrap of natural vegetation, derogatorily called the “overburden”, has been stripped away as the men hunt for black gold. It’s rape by another name.

The only nod to the environmental impact of the tar sands is a short video with a native elder who says quietly, “Water is more precious than oil and I’m worried about the future.” An industry spokesman responds by stating “10% of the active mining footprint has been reclaimed since the 1960s and we are making efforts.” (Upstream Dialogue: The Facts on Oil Sands)

To my surprise, the Oilsands Review, an industry magazine, actually quotes Alexis Bonogofsky from the National Wildlife Federation:  “The Albertan government wants the Oil Sands Discovery Centre to be perceived as a celebration of human ingenuity, but what they don’t understand is that it is a museum of human greed, folly and recklessness.” A series of similar quotes fill the single page devoted to what people are saying about the industry in the media around the world.

Black gold fever

Black gold fever enveloped us that night as we went for a meal at Earl’s next door to our hotel, staffed with waitresses dressed like hookers who tell us they have to be ready for “red-carpet treatment.” The place was packed as every hotel wass booked for the annual trade show. Once again, we’re conspicuous in a room filled with tired men, drinking and having a good time, ogling the waitresses’ white thighs.

The average age in Fort McMurray is 31 and the average annual income is $177,000. Theo remarks, “Everyone here is hustling to put down 5 cents and pick up a dollar.”  The female staff in our hotel, which charged us $155/night for a dark, smoky motel room, were eager to chat. They work long hours and there’s little for women to do in town. They seemed eager for female company.

House for sale in Ft McMurray asking price $3.5 millionSurburbia, however, is quite genteel– across from the highway and up a hill – with house prices averaging in the high $600,000s.  Housing is a real issue in Fort McMurray, even though oil industry executives and workers earn such high salaries. The young mayor, however, is trying her best to civilize this modern-day gold rush town.

A toxic stew

We headed off for Fort McKay the next morning to meet 74-year-old Celina Harpe, a Cree-Chipewyan elder, who’s lived in the area all her life. Maureen is writing her life story. On the way we finally glimpsed the scope of the destruction – enormous tailings lakes (not ponds) filled with toxic chemicals, water and sand, some stretching as long as 14 miles (Syncrude).

These tailings lakes total 170 sq. kilometres and just sit there like huge oozing sores, waiting for some miracle cure that even industry acknowledges is difficult to find (http://oilsands.alberta.ca/tailings). Ducks, geese and shorebirds die in agony when they mistakenly land in this disgusting stew that never freezes over.

The region smells of sulphur and oil – all the way to Fort McKay – and yet government and industry deny “the odours”. It’s two weeks later and I’m still hacking from a brief exposure. How do the workers and native people survive? Some workers are lucky and return upstream to Fort McMurray at night where the air is relatively clean; others are stuck all week in barracks beside the plants, while the native people downstream are slowly dying from cancer, skin, digestive and respiratory diseases. I feel incredibly privileged to live in Victoria.

The tailings lakes increase in volume at a rate that would fill the Toronto Skydome on a daily basis, according to Emonton’s Pembina Institute. And they leak. The water is kept in an unlined earthen structure and even the official oil industry publication, Upstream Dialogue, acknowledges seepage into the ground water and Athabasca River. We will hear a lot more about this when we meet our First Nations family and Dr. O’Connor.

The mines used 800 million bathtubs of fresh water last year, mostly from the Athabasca river (Oilsands Review, Sep. 13, p. 73). That’s as much water as a city of 2 million people require, according to Andrew Nikiforuk, author of Tar Sands. And 70% of this water ends up in tailings lakes. Upstream Dialogue makes no mention of the contaminants in this water, but Natural Resources Canada provides a long list of the cancer-makers.

Canada has one of the worst records of pollution enforcement of any industrial nation.

Next in this blog series:

Part Three:   Don’t drink the water

Terry Dance-Bennink spends time with First Nations families suffering from the toxic air and water in Fort MacKay and interviews Dr. John O’Connor who says don’t drink the tap water!

Terry Dance is a breast cancer survivor who volunteers with the Canadian Cancer Society and local environmental groups. She’s a former vice-president academic of an Ontario college and a writer/personal historian.

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