River Pilgramage

Who Pays? Who Gains?

CELIA HARPE PHOTO AARON HUEYAfter our tour of Suncor and our fly over the Syncrude and Suncor mines, I delve a little into the “cost” of the industry to natural systems.

It takes two tons of  sand to make one barrel of bitumen.

It requires 3.1 barrels of fresh water from the Athabasca River to make one barrel of bitumen. (Actually it takes even more water, but because a good percentage is recycled and used in the process again and again, 3.1 barrels of water to one barrel of bitumen is a fair assessment.)

At least 80% of this “reclaimed water” ends up in the tailings ponds, or what investigative journalist Andrew Nikiforuk calls “the world’s largest impoundment of toxic waste.”

To mine or steam out bitumen the industry also burns enough natural gas each day to heat six million homes.

Every major multinational oil company has a claim in the Tar Sands expecting to get rich and Canada has a new destiny: to provide the United States with bitumen, a low quality high cost substitute for the so called “sweet oil” of the Middle East.

The question for me is always, “Who Pays and Who Gains?”


Celia's familyWe met First Nations elders Celia and Ed Harpe and their family in Fort McKay on the day of a memorial service for their grandson,  32 year old Kristopher, who was killed in an industry accident.

Celia and MaureenCelia has become known as an outspoken critic of the tar sands.  She spoke of her former work as a community nurse and translator, and how she didn’t have words for asthma, cancer, much less cholangiocarcinoma, a rare and aggressive form of cancer that attacks the bile ducts, which was found in Fort Chipewyan.

Ed and MaureenShe said that people were dying young and unexpectedly of various cancers, leukemia and lupus. Celia has suffered skin lesions. Her husband Ed is currently diagnosed with lung cancer and Celia cares for him at home.

Celia talks about exposure to fumes, breathing toxic emissions and developing a fear of their own drinking water from the Athabasca River.  What about the wild game her people have eaten for 11,000 years? The moose, the deer, the beaver, the muskrats all drink the water now proven to contain high concentrations of “carcinogenic polycyclic hydrocarbons and levels of heavy metals, arsenic, mercury, cadmium and selenium high enough to be dangerous to young children.”  I see pictures of her sister’s grandbabies, twins, and I wonder what their lives will be like.

deformed-fish2 John Ulan, EPIC photographyWhile I was there I could smell the fumes and I swear I could even see the particles of black in the air, but Maureen thought that perhaps what we could see was from forest fires, not from the industry. Celia tells stories that Maureen tries to capture with a recorder.  She tells of her grandfather, Adam Boucher, whose uncle had signed the Treaty 8 with Queen Victoria giving up the ancestral land near Moose Lake in return for a reservation along the Athabasca. The people of Fort McKay were promised the right to hunt and fish there in perpetuity, “as long as the sun shines and the river flows and the hills don’t move.”

deformed-fish4 photo Kelly RadmanovichWhen I got home I found pictures of fish from the Athabasca filled with tumors and cancers and lesions. A whole way of living from the land, with the gifts of berries and bear, wolf and coyote has been destroyed. The river is no longer the bountiful source of life that nourished a people for generations. Instead, the only jobs are industry jobs. The industry estimates that less than 10% of the tar sands have been extracted, which makes me very fearful about the future.  I see no sign of stopping. In fact, if the price gets right, there are other companies with permits just ready to jump in and extract as well!

James Hansen, the former director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and one of the most vocal scientists on climate change, wrote  a New York Times editorial estimating that “the remaining reserves of tar sands contain twice the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by the entire global oil industry–IN ALL OF HUMAN HISTORY! ”  I suspect we all will be paying the price and right soon.

picture of Celia with the Tar Sands poster by Aaron Huey
picture of fish with tumor Kelly/Radmanovich
picture of deformed fish John Ulan, Epic photography

Scan tar sands map


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The Fly Over

“My heart is moved by all I cannot save, so much has been destroyed. I have to cast my lot with those who age after age, perversely, with no extraordinary power, reconstitute the world.”           Adrienne Rich

On Saturday we flew over the oil sands mines. The scope and breadth of the entire operation of two companies were in our view. There are 40 companies with permits to dig and drill in situ if the oil is too deep, not all are yet in operation.

Athabasca River flows through the Boreal forest as she has for countless generations blessing all life with water. First we see the Clearwater River winding through the beautiful Boreal and then the place where Clearwater and Athabasca meet…and then the industry.

It takes ten barrels of Athabasca water to make one barrel of oil.  The industry very swiftly tells you how they recycle eight barrels of that water.  The used water, filled with the chemical naptha (the only chemical they would tell us) and oil sheen floating on top is held in many different tailings ponds, some the size of lakes!

The birds have to be kept from landing on a tailings pond so little cannons boom all day and all night. The diminishment is downplayed while protecting ducks from certain death and reclaiming used water to process again is highlighted.

The industry falls over itself with congratulations.

The actual fly over the mines was at 1,000 feet and we could see well.  The site is what I might imagine as a war zone with crater size holes in the Earth.  Sickening orange and yellow green pools of water fill smaller craters while two story size loaders fill up with large clumps of sand that will then need crushing, coking and separating.

It is so labor intensive with such an infrastructure that I wonder how it can be so profitable.

Maureen and I both shake our heads at the vastness.  A slight headache and sinking feeling arises within, but it is not air sickness. It is  dread. It looks like Mars in the middle of the Boreal forest.

We have created a lunar landscape to prop up our modern “wonder world.”  But I don’t want you to worry your little heads about it because in 20-30 years the industry can “reclaim” the land, put the overburden (top growth and muskeg back,)  plant a diverse little forest that will take another 70 years to grow…Heck, Syncrude just received an award for reclaiming a piece of land and now a small herd of bison roams the make believe prairie.

I am sorry to be so cynical, but it is the arrogance that is just killing me.  The thought “Forgive them (us) for they (we) do not know what they (we) do” passes through my thoughts  more than once. We have bought into the story of separation and have forgotten we were born from this Earth along with everything else.

When we look for the long time story, it goes something like this.

Once there was an ancient river flowing into a great sea.  The river died and its sand deposits were covered by the Western Interior Seaway, an ancient ocean which covered Alberta millions of years ago.

The remains of tiny marine plankton that lived in the ocean formed organic matter in the depressions of the sea bed. Over time bacteria and  heat and pressure caused by layering rock and silt cooked the organic material and transformed it into oil.

When the Rocky Mountains formed some 300 million years ago, the oil was forced north into the existing sand deposits left by ancient rivers. The oil is the life energy of  billions of beings from the past.

May we, here for so short a time ourselves, come to know and honor the Earth story. ..the story of life and beauty and transformation.  May we wake up to our role in the story as celebrators of all that is and work to “reconstitute the world.”