October 9 (continued): After our meeting with the women at Ft. McKay, we rush back to Ft. McMurray for a lunch meeting with Jen Grant of Pembina Institute. She directs the oil sands project and tells us that Pembina’s perspective is that money from the oil sands should be used to transition away from fossil fuels.
We hear that 80% of the oil extraction is underground, referred to as “in situ,” and encompasses an area thirty times larger than the surface mines. In situ mining produces 2.5 times more green house gas (GHG) emissions than the surface mines and there is an increasing shift to in situ extraction. Already, between 1998-2008, Alberta had the highest growth of GHG emissions in all of North America. And Canada has no comprehensive GHG plan in place to meet its international commitments. The industry itself focuses mostly on PR rather than actually dealing with the impact on the environment. The amount of land “disturbed” by mining is 686 sq.kms; the amount of land “reclaimed” is 1.04 sq. kms.
With the “gold rush” mentality of exploiting the tar sands as much as possible and as quickly as possible, there is no adequate monitoring of the impacts. There is no land use plan in place, no monitoring of the toxins in the water supplies and no limits on the toxins produced by the extraction. It is always a game of catch up.
After lunch we are picked up in a Suncor bus by two women from Suncor – the longest running mining company in the oil sands – who will be giving us a tour of a huge Suncor mine as well as one of their “reclaimed” tailings pond sites. As you might remember from my first blog, tailing ponds are created to hold the polluted water resulting from the process of extracting bitumen from the tar sands. The woman who conducts the tour is white; the second woman, who is essentially silent through the tour, is Indian. When we enter the Suncor site, we stop to pick up a third woman, white, who holds a higher position in the PR/communications department.
First we drive to high ground where we can look down into the huge, open pit mine. Massive vehicles are in continuous motion in and out of the mine. They produce huge clouds of dust, which coat everything. We can see a river running close by and ask the higher-up woman about the impact of the mining on the water. She tells us they are “grandfathered” and don’t have to deal with the water, so to speak. New companies coming in, such as France’s Total, have to pay attention to the water. We ask about the impact on health and she tells us there is none. In fact, we are told, the air quality here is better than that of Toronto.
I keep thinking about all the women we have met with who talk about all the breathing problems of the children in the communities.
Before leaving, they take us to the reclaimed tailing pond site. We are told of the great pains that the company has taken to return the land to its natural state, even using muskeg that was there before to replant. Medicinal herbs, berries, trees that were there before. As I look at the site, just beyond its “no trespassing” sign, I wonder how poisoned it remains and how long it will be so. How many generations will pass before it might look like it once did. I keep hearing the voices of the women who said,
“You can’t eat money and once our territory is ruined, we can’t get it back. Once our water is gone, we can’t get it back.”
October 10, Wednesday: We will have two more meetings this morning in Ft. McMurray before heading to the airport to fly to Prince George and begin our journey by bus along the proposed route of the Northern Gateway pipeline, which, if approved, would be built through much First Nation territory before ending at the coast where giant ships would carry the oil off to China and other countries.
Our first meeting is with Crystal Lameman of the Beaver Lake Cree First Nations. Crystal is an activist working to defend First Nation lands from the destruction wrought by the industry. She tells us that while Canada has dismantled environmental laws, First Nation treaty rights are intact, rights that include being able to hunt, fish, and gather on their territories. There are over 17,000 permits issued to industry that are infringements on treaty rights. Her band has sued because they did not give permission for those permits.
She tells us that 80% of the in situ mines are located where they live. All the major oil companies are on their traditional lands and the band did not give them permission to be there. The pipelines from those mines that cut back and forth across the land have had a major impact on the Caribou. There has been a 70% decline in the number of Caribou in our area. They are afraid to cross the pipelines and often they are attacked by wolves. The government’s answer was to kill the wolves but we opposed that and called for a sanctuary area for the Caribou. “It’s not the wolves who kill our Caribou, it’s the industry.” The industry is also taking our water [in the process of mining the tar sands]. It’s water we won’t get back.
Crystal said people are willing to continue to pacify themselves with money. They are willing to continue being economic hostages. People are afraid to talk about it. More are willing to talk now but they always say,
“Don’t use my name. Carry our message but don’t use my name.”
Crystal tells us how difficult it is to work against the tar sands but says, “I continue to do what I do out of moral obligation.” I wish more had her courage.
Our final meeting in Ft. McMurray is with Marie Adam and her niece Irene. Marie is originally from Saskatchewan but in 1971 took her children and ran away from her husband and ended up here. She tells us how the environment has changed – that it can be seen in the trees, the water. She says her concern is the water, but cutting down the trees has had it’s impact too. But of course, she says, “we can’t go back to the trap lines” – in other words, their traditional way of life.
Marie tells us she’s “in between” on the tar sands. It’s government. They just sign the leases and it’s money for the government. We don’t see any of it, she tells us. On the other hand, without the tar sands, there would be nothing. No work. She says she’s not happy about it as an individual, but what can she do. She can’t go on the war path. She tells us she’s “too old now.” Marie says that everyone needs a job. But why do they need to expand the tar sands?
She says that she often sits and thinks about it – how things were “then” and how they are now. Marie says she will never live now to teach her grandchildren to set a snare like her grandmother taught her. Changes have affected everyone. She says that so many of the elders are gone now and it is sad because they aren’t leaving their language, their ways, for future generations.
Marie tells us that it is harder to take on the industry because they are backed by the government. By [Stephen] Harper, [Alison] Redford. She says that when people go to a meeting with the industry, they see that all industry cares about is money. They don’t care about the trees, the little bumble bee. And when she asks them what they will leave for their grandchildren, the room goes silent. No one speaks because they can’t give us an answer.
(to be continued…)