A river pilgrimage to the oil sands

Six of us set off on a pilgrimage along the Athabasca River this fall, starting at its headlands in Alberta’s ice fields. It’s the largest energy extraction project on the planet and yet it’s out of sight, out of mind for most of us.

I’ve never seen the tar sands. I joined this trip because I wanted to see the source of the threat, as well as nature untouched by our greed. This is my testimony to what I learned on a journey through a natural wilderness, a man-made hell, and my own emotional wilderness.

Five women and one man (my 77 year-old husband, Theo) meet each other at a peaceful Franciscan retreat house with a beautiful view of the Rockies. We are to spend two weeks accompanying the river whenever we can, traveling in two cars.

We meet the river the next day and marvel at its power and milky sheen as we soak up the spray from Athabasca Falls. I can’t get over the vast swaths of green velvet forest, untouched by clear-cutting. Further along the Icefields Parkway, we hike up to the foot of a glacier but return somewhat sad as evidence of global warming is all around us. I’d visited this glacier 10 years ago and it’s noticeably smaller.

Eventually we make our way towards Fort McMurray. Highway 63 is like nothing I’ve ever seen. We drive north for several hours on a straight flat road bordered with small stunted trees struggling to grow in marshy land. The infamous highway is being expanded into a four-lane expressway, a sign the oil companies are here to stay.

On our way into Fort McMurray we stop at the Oil Sands Discovery Centre. It’s an informative, slick propaganda tool designed by the oil industry, mainly for children. We are shocked by the coloured map which shows Fort McMurray and Fort McKay surrounded by dozens of oil companies. Every inch of land is claimed.

We head off to Fort McKay the next morning to meet 77-year-old Celina Harpe, a Cree-Chipewyan elder, who’s lived in the area all her life. On the way we finally glimpse the scope of the destruction – enormous tailings lakes (not ponds) filled with toxic chemicals, water and sand, some stretching as long as 14 miles. Ducks, geese and shorebirds die in agony when they mistakenly land in this disgusting stew that never freezes over.

The tailings lakes increase in volume at a rate that would fill the Toronto Skydome on a daily basis, according to Edmonton’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.

The mines used 800 million bathtubs of fresh water last year, mostly from the Athabasca River. That’s as much water as a city of 2 million people require, according to Andrew Nikiforuk, author of Tar Sands. 70 per cent of this water ends up in tailings lakes.

The dirt road into Fort McKay is a bumpy ride. We meet Celina and Clara – both born and raised in Fort McKay. Clara has prepared fried bannock with home-made jams and a lovely stew for us all. She lives in a new subdivision in a modern house but the tap water is undrinkable.

“Our new-borns come home from Fort McMurray and within a week, they show signs of asthma,” Clara tells us. “We have to drink bottled water and can only shower briefly in lukewarm water because it’s so toxic from chemicals used by the oil companies. We have all kinds of skin rashes. Dr. O’Connor tells our pregnant women and new-borns to completely avoid tap water.” One of us goes to the sink to wash our hands, and we’re quickly told to stop.

 

Dr. O’Connor is a family physician and director of Health and Human Services in Fort McKay. He first started working with Fort Chipewyan residents in 2001 and was concerned by the high incidence of cancer among the 1,200 people living downstream from the oil sands. When he raised his concerns publicly, he was persecuted by the oil industry and government and lost his medical license for “raising undue alarm.”

He was subsequently cleared and reinstated after public protest and evidence from the Alberta Cancer Board that, indeed, cancer rates were 30 per cent higher in the area than normal in 2009. And in the fall of 2009, the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found air pollution from the tar sands industry is five times greater than reported.

The next day we drive back north to Fort McKay for lunch with Celina Harpe. She serves us baked bannock and a delicious moose stew – a first for me. Harpe is more than willing to share her life story with us, focusing a lot on the health issues in her community.

“In the old days, not many people died in one year. But we lost ten people last year – seven adults and three kids. Ten in one year is awful. My husband, Ed, sleeps all the time now because he has a cancerous tumour. There are dollars for housing but no clean water or air,” Harpe points out. “They’re going to build an extended care building right beside the river. But what about the toxic water?”

After hours of sharing, Celina wraps up with a moving story about her grandfather’s prediction of the devastation of their land.

“My grandfather used to sit on top of the hill – only he had a house there then. He’d look at the river for hours. I ran over one day and sat with him when I was a little girl. He said, ‘You know, God gave this river and ice and clear water – it’s so beautiful. In the future, if you have children, you’re going to have to tell them the white man is going to spoil that water. You’re going to have to buy clean water and they’re going to dig big holes for oil. There’s lots of oil here. They will tear up mother earth. Nice trees will be torn up. I don’t know where your grandchildren are going to go after that. I don’t like it but I see it.’

“I still remember what he said,” Harpe says. “Now I think about it and he was so, so right. My grandfather’s hunting ground is right where Suncor is now.”

I left the tar sands feeling quite overwhelmed. When you actually see the size of the devastation and the ruthlessness with which black gold is pursued, it’s easy to feel despair. I live within driving distance of one of the world’s most environmentally damaging activities and yet I had never seen it. I’m not alone. If I remain silent, I’m complicit. The key to change is our political will.

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