Kirti Bhadresa wrote this upon arriving home from a meaningful first trip to the Oilsands.Â I encourage everyone you know who hasn’t been there to read this.Â As always, I welcome your thoughts.
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This weekend I learned that there is nothing in the world to be more grateful for than the clean dry socks hidden at the bottom of a mud-covered backpack, and that some really messed up things are going on that I don’t remember us consenting to. I’m not a scientist, or even scientifically-inclined. I know hardly anything about oil sands development, I definitely went in with a bias, and the things I know and observe are largely emotional. I don’t think that oil extraction is entirely wrong because I like my comforts too, but I think we need to do it carefully.
Here are few stats I did find though: the average age in Fort McMurray is 31. The average income is over $90,000 per year (twice the national average). 17% of the people are on drugs (compared to 2% in Calgary), and its mostly cocaine. 10 yellow pages of the phone book are dedicated to escorts, in a city of 60,000. It’s projected that1/3 of Alberta will be claimed by the oil sands in the near future. If these things are anything close to true, change needs to happen quickly.
When my friend Meghan invited me to join Pembina on the “Connecting the Drops” expedition I jumped at the opportunity. I’ve been wanting to see Fort McMurray and the oil sands development for some time. Plus, this was an opportunity to paddle down the river. Don Van Hout has been following the Athabasca from its source, with some company along the way, and a large group joining him for the journey through the sands as an awareness-raising journey. His dedication and spirit are amazing.
I started to get a sense of what was going on as we neared Fort Mac in the car from Calgary. It was past midnight by the time we got there, and eerie, with every stretch of highway in the area under construction. The roads are all being widened as the town readies itself for steady leaps in growth.
Our group trickled into our campsite on the outskirts of the city. The group of about 40 included environmentalists, people working in the oil industry, archeologists, a musician, ecologists, outdoor educators, travelers and students. We were even accompanied by a politician Dr. David Swann, the provincial environment critic. My first impression of the city of Fort McMurray came from the Tim Hortons the next morning; at that time of day the only women I saw were working behind the counter. I wondered how that imbalance affected the community, that overflow of testosterone. But I soon realized that community might not be the priority up here. There is no feeling of permanence, and the general impression is that the shops and restaurants are set up for convenience. Everything feels temporary.
Signs everywhere proudly nickname the city “Boomtown”. To me, there’s only one outcome at the end of a boom.
Fort McMurray is definitely booming. The signs are everywhere. The bottom of my car scrapes on the speed bumps that are designed for trucks. The trucks are mostly brand new and fancy. Then there are the drug problems, and evidence of that in the walk and talk of people throughout the city.
The first item on my agenda was to meet our group at a press conference for Connecting the Drops on the banks of the Athabasca. David Swann and Don spoke, as did Danielle from the Bow Riverkeepers.
Residents of a nearby reserve spoke about how they are affected by the development. An elder told us about the alarming rates of cancer, she spoke specifically of the children affected by the disease. She talked about the poor water quality. Even the flesh of the animals, including moose, has been determined too toxic to consume. Ironically, leaders of these reserves are also keen to start development on their lands too. For the money.
Our group gathered together on the rocky banks of the river. Many rocks turned out to be the tar sand pliable pieces of putty we broke apart to see the insides that were shiny with oil. They were beautiful. The next day we started our canoe trip. It was everything I could have hoped for as a mini-vacation. The Athabasca here is wide and gentle. We went through every weather condition: paddled hard against the wind, and lounged in the sun as the river carried us along easily.
At the end of the day we found a perfect sandbar to camp on: a narrow stretch of beach in the middle of the river. One side made an excellent swimming spot. As soon as we set up our tents, we jumped in. We lounged like we were at a resort club, played Frisbee, ate, read, as the sun set. After sunset we gathered in a circle around the fire.
It wasn’t until then that I started to notice a periodic “bang” off in the distance. And then, later, there was the beeping of trucks and the sounds of machinery. I didn’t realize that just over the cliffs at the rivers edge was the tar sands operations. The banging was the sound of cannons that were set off by motion around the tailing ponds (where the dirty water remaining after the oil is washed out of the sand is dumped). If birds or other wildlife were to rest on that water, its toxicity would do extreme damage. In fact, this water is so toxic there is nothing they can do with it. There is no efficient way to dispose of it.
I woke up first the next morning and watched the sun rise through the mist on the river, stunned by how gentle it was while we humans were so willing to just suck it dry for the sake of oil and money.
When we saw the sands from the canoe the next day I was awed, but not surprised. I’d seen those pictures before. Trucks and machines pushing dirt around in what looks like a wasteland. I wondered what doing that job every day, for long days, would do to your soul. There was a heaviness in our group. The sympathetic sky gave us a good dose of rain too. And we were lucky to see lots of wildlife from the banks: eagles, bears, moose. The sun came out later like a gift, and we paddled on steadily.
None of us were prepared for the sight of the Suncor processing plant, just visible as we made our way under the ironically named “Bridge to Nowhere”. The sound was loud and industrial like nothing I’ve heard before: beeping and clanging. The air was dense and even the water seemed thicker. There was still wildlife on the banks, but now I wanted to shoo it away. I couldn’t believe how close the operation is to the water. Most of us, including the long-time paddler I shared my canoe with, cried. But there was nothing to say. I thought of how Romeo Dallaire felt as he witnessed a genocide, knowing that he couldn’t stop it without the support of the world. It felt like war and destruction.
I thought, the things we are told about this are not true. This is not safe, or necessary. There is no need for this kind of destruction. And I am not okay with this. This is not the world I want to be a part of creating. None of this happened with my consent. And this damage is not being done by people who know what is right.
We grouped out canoes together and watched in silence for a long time. We carried on down the river. We spent another night at ourcampground, had a fire, laughed and talked. We made our way home, had showers and went back ordinary lives. But something, for me, is definitely changed. I need to be a part of making broader change happen. And I’m incredibly grateful that I was there with a group of strong, insightful people.
You can see my photos from the trip: http://www.flickr.com/photos/kirti_b/
Unfortunately, they got loading in backwards so they start at the end of the trip, not the beginning.) And learn more about the rest of the expedition: www.connectingthedrops.caÂ Â