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Liz Barratt-Brown’s Blog

"We're in a war zone here - a war for oil" - our day in the heart of the tar sands

Liz Barratt-Brown

Posted June 15, 2010

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Yesterday, my colleague Susan Casey-Lefkowitz, blogged about our fact-finding mission to Northern Alberta. We are here with a senior team of NRDC colleagues, including our executive director Peter Lehner, to see first-hand the massive tar sands extraction operations near Ft. McMurray and to travel down river to the remote village of Ft. Chipewyan and onto the Peace-Athabasca River delta, one of the largest and richest freshwater deltas in the world.

As we traveled up by plane from Calgary, we could see the stunning stretch of Boreal forest unfold beneath us, a mosaic of trees, muskeg, and winding rivers. We could also see seismic lines laid out in perfect grids, defying all the natural swales and contours of the land in their precision. Already, it was clear the modern human hand was not to be pushed around by nature’s gentler lines.

Stepping from the plane in Ft. McMurray (or Ft. McMoney as many call it – it’s been the boomtown heart of the tar sands operations), we were surprised by the powerful smell of pine. The wind was blowing in our favor. We drove from the airport to our “eco” hotel (the hotel is offsetting its carbon footprint even if the tar sands operations are not).  Across from the hotel is the Oil Sands Discovery Center, where you can visit the “machinery garden” – what looks like a retirement home for some of the most hulking mammoth equipment used in the tar sands operations. Wall-e would know just what to do there. 

Back at the hotel, we were joined by Steve Courtoreille, the Nunee Health Board member and Councillor of the Mikisew Cree Nation from Ft. Chipewyan, by Dr. John O’Connor, who has had a long association with the community as their fly in doctor and advocate on health issues, and by Francois Paulette, Elder and former chief of the Dene community in Ft. Smith (also downstream from the tar sands).  

John O'Connor and Steve Courtoreille June 2010.jpg

Steve started us off by talking about the relationship of his people to the land – proud people who collected food from the land for their families. He described how there were radically fewer animals now, especially muskrat and beaver, and how difficult it was to get onto their traditional hunting grounds because the water levels in the Athabasca River and Delta had dropped precipitously. Most striking is that hunters out on the land now carry bottled water, purchased from far away, because they do not trust their own waters. What used to require only a dip of the cup now required lugging enough water to be in the bush for days.

Steve described how the water had changed and the fish and animals with it. Where once abundant fish were staples in their diet, they would now no longer eat them – too many fish had been pulled from the river with tumors and ill tasting flesh. The community’s close relationship to nature had changed. The foods and land that had given them health were now a threat to their lives. Later, after we mentioned the death of a 28 year old young man to a rare bile duct cancer, Steve told us he was his nephew. 

Francois had similar stories, talking about how endangered the Athabasca river is with its 35% drop in water levels and how the health of the people, who’s home this is, is irrelevant in the industrial development of the region. He described how coming down from his community, the deafening booming of canons to scare birds off the deadly tailings ponds reminded him of a shooting range – “it’s like we are in a war zone here, a war for oil.” 

Dr. O’Connor, who had been persecuted by the Alberta health authorities and government for blowing the whistle on the elevated occurrence of cancer – and of extremely rare cancers – in Ft. Chipweyan, spoke about the efforts of the community to get basic exposure monitoring and environmental causation investigated in the follow up to the government’s own studies validating Dr. O’Connor’s earlier observations. A common theme was deep disappointment in a government that has failed to look out for its people as the imperative to extract oil from the tar sands overwhelmed any appetite to entertain the possibility that it might be killing the people downstream.

With this, we ventured out onto the highway north to the large open pit mines. The day was still bright and sunny, an odd calm as we made our way past the ancillary operators here (forest product companies logging the trees over the tar sands, endless equipment purveyors, and a strange assortment of barrack looking accommodations). Rounding a bend, the day changed drastically as we were blasted by a storm of fine sand mixed with the upgrading plumes and hydrocarbon emissions off the massive tailings ponds. We were surrounded by a violent haze with the silhouette of extractors and upgraders on the skyline. The blue and green calm of the forest was behind us.

Tar sands dust storm June 2010.jpg

We passed barrack after barrack of housing (Block N, Block P…) at the Syncrude upgrading complex. Driving in, we parked the van to take a closer look before guards told us to leave and to “never take photos of this facility,” asking to see our cameras.

Photographing Syncrude June 2010.jpg

This hostile interaction with the Syncrude guard contrasted mightily with Syncrude’s cheery language in the bison park and another equipment “museum” extolling their work with local communities and outreach on environmental issues. Between Syncrude and Suncor, a huge proportion of the tar sands production lies on either side of the highway. Bundling ourselves back into the van, we said we were off to visit with Suncor to which the guard turned her back and chortled, “yeah, likely story.”

After a quick lunch overlooking the tailings ponds (and strange scarecrow “bitu-men guarding the ponds), we made our way to the equally enormous Suncor facility, replete with its own upgrader, tailings ponds and huge piles of pet coke. We had an up-close look at a water holding pond – sending recycled water from the tailings ponds to the upgrader. The smell of the bitumen in this pond was overwhelming. Suncor had made a big effort to greet us with a full team of engineers and community outreach staff as well as Brent Stuart, their head of government affairs, who had flown up in the morning with us from Calgary. After a lively discussion about what we had just seen and about efforts they are making to reclaim one of their very large tailings ponds abutting the Athabasca (Pond 1 – a very Dr. Suessian name), we headed out for a look at the pond, now on its way to being landscaped, including with snags to attract raptors (some were upside down trees planted into the soil scraped from other mining areas). We were also able to get a look at the on-going mining operations and at the enormous upgrader, all dwarfing Pond 1 and its infant seedlings.    

It’s hard to imagine the contrast – of the beautiful, peaceful Boreal forest and that crisp smell of pine that greeted us as we landed with some of the most industrialized and scarred landscape on the planet. And all through it – with the exception of the Syncrude guard – were cheerful Canadians going along doing their business of extracting the dirtiest oil on the planet from the ancient forest soils of the wilderness. One of our trip members was taken aback by this attitude saying that those engaged in the practice of mountain top removal for coal in her home region of Appalachia seemed more conflicted by it. Who knows why that is. But one very obvious reason may be that this is not these Canadians’ home. They have not lived for multiple generations in the communities that surround this enormous operation. It’s the home of the First Nations who have lived here peacefully on the land for the millennia. They are the ones most affected by its effluents downstream. And that is where we are headed this morning.

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John SmithJun 18 2010 02:58 AM

You didn't seem to mind burning fuel in the plane you flew up in or the vehicles you were driving around in. For "people" who have no complaints about using what is being produced you sure have a lot of biased opinions. You use the product they are making day in and day out and then complain that it is being produced, hmmmm? It would be like me going to an animal rights protest in a fur coat!!!!! You want to play the I am better then you game then next time you better show up in an electric car or scooter. Then maybe you will have some what of a right to write that biased piece you just wrote. You don't hear the first nations complaining about all the money and tax exemptions they receive from these projects either. You want to complain then let's talk about everything not only the things that you think make the tar sands look bad.

Liz Barratt-BrownJun 18 2010 10:02 AM

Hi John,

NRDC works hard to improve the fuel efficiency and to diversify fuel sources for all forms of our transportation. We also work hard on rules related to combustion as well as production of transportation fuels. Go to our webpage here:

Regarding aviation, we work as independent advisors to an international consortium of commercial aviation companies to commercialize environmentally sustainable biofuels for use in jet engines. See their webpage here:

You are right to say that we need to work on all aspects of our fuels use and that is exactly what we are doing. As to this trip in particular, it is important for building relationships, whether that is with inustry, environmental groups, or the First Nations in Alberta and it is also critical to see this first hand. Part of the problem is that the tar sands is very far away and few Americans know about what is happening there.

Finally, there are a lot more industry and government officials travelling back and forth from Calgary to the cities where we come from advocating on the tar sands. Our trips are few and far between in comparison!

Thanks for your interest.


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