Fort McMurray, Alberta

How the tar-sands boom is quickly but quietly ripping up the forest and turning Northern Alberta into a global environmental hotspot

The road to Fort McMurray, Alberta, formally begins about 200 kilometres north of Edmonton, just past the busy Al Pac pulp mill and a small village called Amber Valley. Until 1970, Highway 63 didn't even appear on a map. Since then the 240-kilometre-long, two-lane road has become the critical artery in and out of Canada's fastest-growing city. Drivers in the know call it Hell's Highway or the Highway of Death.

I have to admit that Highway 63 is probably one of the worst roads I've ever travelled. On any given day, thousands of logging trucks, SUVs, semi-trailers, buses and tanker trucks form a frantic parade to and from the mighty tar sands. Often a dozen different convoys of extra-wide loads carrying tires, turbines and cokers the size of houses completely dominate the highway. In fact, Highway 63 probably ferries the highest tonnage per kilometre of any road in Canada.

All of this heavy traffic encourages a certain do-or-die recklessness, particularly in the absence of any RCMP patrols. Drivers not only pass on solid lines on hills but also pass on soft shoulders at speeds that might alarm race-car professionals. (I'm told speeding tickets average 180 kilometres an hour.) If a wide load carrying tar-sands equipment blocks the view, an impatient driver typically swings onto the shoulder to catch a glimpse of what's ahead and then darts out into the passing lane like a bat out of hell. Thursdays and Sundays are the worst. That's when the shifts change at the mines and thousands of workers take to the road to return to their families and girlfriends in Edmonton. Many are tired, and some are pissed to the gills. A lot of people won't drive those days because they don't want to become another little white roadside cross, decorated with a hard hat or an overstuffed teddy bear.

The carnage here can be pretty graphic. In one notorious accident, a logging truck clipped the back of a parked flatbed trailer. The collision pitched the truck's logs missile-like into an oncoming minivan containing two tar-sands workers. Trees and metal crushed both the 62-year-old driver and his 37-year-old passenger.

I begin with this lengthy road report only because, in retrospect, my drive to Fort McMurray seemed like the perfect introduction to a place that is fast becoming hell on earth and Canada's most extreme destination.

Wildlife biologists say the tar sands will do in 50 years what a glacial advance might do in 100,000 years

By now, every Canadian has heard stories about the incredible tar-sands boom in Northern Alberta's boreal forest. Experts predict that in the next decade, multinational oil companies will spend $125-billion to mine an area the size of Florida in order to exploit the vast reserves of bitumen. Less well-known are the environmental costs that have led the United Nations to describe the world's second-largest oil reserve as one of the planet's central "environmental hot spots." Wildlife biologists say the tar sands will do in 50 years what a glacial advance might do in 100,000 years: completely uproot the forest.

Bitumen, which helped glue the Tower of Babel together, is easily the world's foulest fossil fuel. It's a mess of heavy tar trapped in sand and clay that requires Herculean engineering efforts to upgrade into oil. "You know you are at the bottom of the ninth when you are schlepping a tonne of sand to get a barrel of oil," notes CIBC chief economist Jeff Rubin. The schlepping takes place in one of two ways. Companies either attack shallow deposits with huge Appalachian-size open pit mines or they drill deeper deposits with in situ (in place) technologies. In situ mining usually involves injecting superheated volumes of chemicals or steam into bitumen in order to melt it.

The open pit mines, essentially truck and shovel operations, will soon occupy 3,300 kilometres of forest. To extract just one barrel of oil from an open pit mine requires draining muskegs and fens, cutting down trees, rolling up the soil, and then digging up and washing two tonnes of sand in hot water. This costly process plus upgrading requires approximately $100,000 worth of infrastructure to produce oil at a rate of a barrel a day, and currently consumes enough natural gas to keep three million Canadian homes warm daily. Within a decade the tar sands could consume nearly a fifth of Canada's natural gas supply. Even oil analysts consider the use of a clean fuel to make a dirty one poor alchemy: it's "turning gold into lead."

The in situ operations, which lie under 21 per cent of Alberta, are just as ugly. Although still in their infancy, in situ projects could industrialize 14 million hectares of forest with thousands of well sites and require the construction of 30,000 kilometres of access roads. In situ mining, then, has the potential to make a country-sized footprint on the land the size of, say, Greece, Nepal or Bangladesh. Compared to the open pit mines, in situ also uses nearly twice as much natural gas and spews nearly twice as much carbon per barrel as the open pit mines. (It's a groundwater hog too, but the federal government has ignored this vital issue for years.)

The tar sands are now Canada's single greatest weather maker

All in all, the tar sands are now Canada's single greatest weather maker and single largest source of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. You just can't mine a third-rate resource like bitumen without creating up to three times more carbon than conventional crude. So Canadian engineers have performed a dubious miracle in the tar sands: they have found a way to make oil as carbon-intensive as coal.

For nearly a century, the Alberta government has dreamed about getting rich from all the bitumen under its northern forest. (The feds in fact rake in even more money than Alberta.) In the 1960s, the province actually considered nuking the area to melt the oil out of the sand, but U.S. interests killed the idea. Timing, however, is everything in the oil business. Huge trucks the size of dinosaurs, low royalty rates and record oil prices have managed to do the same work as a nuclear bomb in just one decade. Nearly 60 per cent of the world's oil investments now fuel frantic activity in the tar sands. As a consequence, upgraded bitumen currently fills up 50 per cent of Canadian gas tanks and supplies 10 per cent of North America's oil. If the prime minister were to shut down production today, half of all Canadian vehicles would run out of gas. So this story is really about the hidden sacrifices being made in the Alberta bush so that all of us can continue the illusion of business as usual.

Fort McMurray, once the centre of the fur trade, sits at the confluence of two beautiful rivers: the Athabasca and the Clearwater. Last October, the rivers' tamarack-lined banks glowed yellow as I drove down Beacon Hill into a postmodern corporate city that is home to 80,000 tar-sands miners, truckers, businessmen and assorted service workers from 70 countries. Most of the people don't live by the water but in trailer parks or sprawling upland suburbs that oddly look like transplanted Calgary neighbourhoods. Here at the latitude of Ungava Bay, the traffic zooms by frantically. Everybody I talked to called it "overwhelming."

My first stop in Fort McMurray was at the tourist information office where I learned that the town's motto is "We have the energy." The women operating the place bubbled with information, and said the most common question is, "Where do I apply for a job?" (The average tar-sands salary in Fort McMurray is a whopping $93,000.) Every day the visitors' booth gets calls from people as far away as Germany, Brazil and Norway looking for work.

Given that each open pit mine occupies an area between 150 and 200 square kilometres in size, I thought I might need a map, so I popped into the offices of the Energy and Utility Board (EUB), Alberta's energy regulator. The secretary, a pleasant émigré from Newfoundland, looked at me as though I had just asked her to take off her clothes. She said she didn't know if they had any maps. She disappeared for a moment and came back with a black-and-white photocopy that didn't even identify half the projects. I eventually bought one for $100 from a surveying company. On the frontier of the world's largest capital project, free enterprise draws the maps.

According to its mandate, the Calgary-based EUB is supposed to be responsible for the "orderly, efficient and economic development in the public interest of the oil-sands resources of Alberta." Yet it didn't open an office in Fort McMurray until 2003. It now regulates 52 separate projects worth $90-billion with 20 employees on site. To date, the board has approved every company with a multi-billion-dollar project, regardless of its impact. Even objections by the mayor, medical staff or Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo can't stop a mine.

After visiting with small businessmen and trailer park residents who called the tar sands "crazy-it's something you have to see to believe," I got in touch with Ruth Kleinbub-a well-known local environmentalist-and her husband Grant. (Environmentalists in Fort McMurray, a 24-hour-shift town, are as rare as albino buffalo.) The Kleinbubs can remember a time when Fort McMurray didn't just run on bitumen and money. After moving to the area in 1981, the Ontario couple raised four children on the banks of the Clearwater River in an old community called Waterways. Their neighbour, a trapper, taught the kids how to hunt rabbit and weasel. The odd wolf often loped by, as did a mother bear. "You'd always see wildlife on your way to work," recalled Grant, a welder. But that part of Fort McMurray is gone, he said. "McMurray was a northern community then and now it's a city with southern ambitions."

It's also a city with southern problems. Mega problems. After six years of explosive growth in which the town's population nearly doubled, the city waste water plant requires a $160-million upgrade. Garbage plugs the landfill site. The city has Canada's highest rents and as many as nine people share an apartment. Service at most stores is stretched due to intense competition for skilled and unskilled labour. Compared to the rest of Alberta, Fort McMurray has 89 per cent more assaults, 215 per cent more drug offences and 117 per cent more impaired driving cases. To service more than 10,000 single men in work camps, the city boasts a thriving army of prostitutes and healthy STD rates. And thanks to chronic health-care shortages, Fort McMurray now has the dubious distinction of having the highest number of patients per family physician in the country: 4,500. Fort McMurray is Canada's worst urban nightmare on steroids.

When I asked Ruth Kleinbub what she worries about most, her answer was short: "The land, water and air. Everything."

To get a sense of what's happening to this corner of the boreal forest, I ventured out on the Athabasca River one sunny afternoon with John Semple. Semple, a trim fit man, arrived in Fort McMurray as a firefighter in 1976 and has since made a life as an outfitter on the river. He and his wife survived the aggressiveness of the first tar-sands boom in the 1970s and the slowdown in the 1980s. But the current pace of economic aggression flummoxes him. "This growth isn't sustainable. It's unbelievable. Anyone who wants to build a plant can do so."

In a Whiskey Jack, we motored upriver to the Suncor site, the closest mine to Fort McMurray and the water. Within minutes, the Athabasca's high steep banks enveloped us and you wouldn't know that thousands of immigrants were moiling and toiling a short distance away. Yellow aspen and tamarack painted a fall scene as the odd eagle floated by. According to Semple's depth gauge the river rarely ran deeper than 10 feet.

Like most of Alberta's rivers, the Athabasca is ailing due to sustained government neglect. Since the 1970s, the summer flow has declined by a third downstream of Fort McMurray. Yet every year the open pit mines remove as much water from the river as a city of two million people. The mines now account for two-thirds of all withdrawals from the river (it takes two to four barrels of water to make one barrel of oil). According to the Pembina Institute, an Alberta-based energy watchdog, the tar sands will soon suck up as much water as Metropolitan Toronto.

None of this determined water taking, of course, is sustainable. In doling out water licences, Alberta Environment has yet to factor in the impact of climate change, and has also failed to gather data on the impact on water quality, fish habitat and riverside plants. Even the federal Department of Fisheries, a johnny-come-lately on most issues, recently testified at a public hearing that Alberta's management plan for the river is full of "uncertainties and data gaps." A 2006 report by the World Wildlife Fund predicts that, under a conservative two-degree warming scenario, the Athabasca River will soon fail to support the thirst of the tar-sands industry as well as fish populations downstream. It also notes that the MacKenzie River Basin Transboundary Agreement, which calls for "the maintenance of ecological integrity" and "equitable utilization of water resources" on the river, won't be worth the paper it's written on. No matter. An industry stakeholder group recently declared "that changes in the condition of the Athabasca River up to and including 2005 have been minor."

Near the Suncor mine, the eastern shore of the Athabasca resembled a treeless and sulphurous smelling moonscape. Semple killed the boat's motor and pointed out a very high, odd-looking bank on the west side. "This was an island once in the middle of the river." In the late 1960s, Suncor-one of the tar-sands pioneers and now a major Calgary-based company-actually rerouted the river around Tar Island to make a tailings pond for its toxic waste.

These days, 90 per cent of the water that the tar-sands mines withdraws from the Athabasca River ends up in tailings ponds or dykes, some of the largest human-made structures on the planet. Many are the size of Muskoka lakes in Ontario's cottage country. The dykes, however, aren't much good for swimming, fishing or canoeing. They contain polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), naphthenic acids, heavy metals, salts and bitumen. The PAHs alone are big trouble. Of 25 PAHs studied by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 14 are human carcinogens. They tend to target the liver, fatty tissues and the gastrointestinal tract, and may also be reproductive toxins. The ponds contain so many PAHs that even midges, blackflies and mosquitoes carry them. (During my research, one of the craziest statistics on the tar sands I found said that it would take seven million years for these bugs to remove all the PAHs in the tar sands.)

"There is stuff coming out of there into the river."

Semple can't figure out how the Tar Island Dyke was ever allowed to be built so close to a river that feeds the MacKenzie River Basin, which drains nearly one sixth of Canada and provides water and fish to 300,000 aboriginals. "There is stuff coming out of there into the river," he said.

The Tar Island Dyke, the first tailings dam built by the tar-sands industry, was an experiment at the time. Engineers thought it would only be needed for three years, because no one realized how toxic the tailings would be. Originally designed to be 40 feet high, the dam now towers more than 300 feet above the river and stretches nearly four kilometres. Not surprisingly, the dyke has experienced lots of problems including something called "deformation creep." Norbert Morgenstern, a prominent University of Alberta engineer and tailings pond expert, explains that "creep" just means movement in the dam's foundations. To stop the creep, Suncor recently put a small berm at the toe of the dyke.

According to Morgenstern, the Tar Island Dyke reflects "incremental learning in the industry." At one point, the original dyke even drained toxic waste into the river. Now, as Semple guessed, it just seeps into the Athabasca. "There is leakage from the dyke," admits Morgenstern. In 2001 the engineer wrote a disturbing paper on the effectiveness of tailings ponds. He concluded that many failed, that their reliability is "among the lowest of earth structures" and that "well-intentioned corporations employing apparently well-qualified consultants is not adequate insurance against serious incidents."

However, Morgenstern, who sits on Alberta's dam safety committee, didn't think these conclusions really applied to the tar sands. Others aren't quite so confident. At a 2005 conference on geotechnical engineering for disaster mitigation, two Iranian engineers reported the results of a study at the Syncrude Tailings Dam and concluded "that the tailings dam and foundation are comparatively in a more critical condition with respect to yield zones, displacements and strains" than expected. At a 2006 symposium, four Canadian engineers revealed that one dyke was leaking naphthenic acids, trace metals and ammonium into the groundwater. Other engineers have expressed worries about the "significant design challenges" posed by actually building raised toxic lakes on top of large Pleistocene glacial meltwater channel deposits, a common practice in the tar sands. Earthquakes and extreme weather events, of course, can make rubble of even the best-engineered toxic dykes. "If any of those [tailings ponds] were ever to breach and discharge into the river, the world would forever forget about the Exxon Valdez," notes David Schindler, one of the world's most respected water ecologists. (The Valdez released 11 million gallons of crude into Prince William Sound, Alaska.)

To get a closer look at the world's largest concentration of toxic tailing ponds, I rented a Cessna 172 for a flight over the tar sands. My pilot was a petite 29-year-old redhead, Cheris, from Saskatchewan. "Wherever there is oil, there are airplanes," she quipped. Cheris regularly flies tar-sands workers over the mine sites so they can point out to their families where they work.

From the air, the tailings ponds look like the work of giant prehistoric beavers. During a recent tour, Stéphane Dion, leader of the Liberal Party, even mistook them for natural lakes. The toxic ponds range in size from 150 hectares to 3,000 hectares and now cover what used to be 50 square kilometres of forest and muskeg. Astronauts can see them from space. Jim Byrne, a water expert at the University of Lethbridge, calculates that if you drained all of the tar-sands waste into Lake Erie, you could fill it to a depth of eight inches. By 2030, this toxic soup would be nearly seven feet deep.

The actual volume of some ponds really does boggle the mind. China's controversial Three Gorges Dam submerged 13 major cities, 140 towns and 326 peasant villages and apparently could create enough electricity to supply the entire U.S. But technically it is not the world's largest. That honour belongs to Canada's Syncrude Tailings Dam. It actually has a larger fill volume than Three Gorges and holds 540 million cubic metres of water, toxins and sand. It's a 22-square-kilometre holding tank for fish killers such as naphthenic acids and PAHs. Another Syncrude pond extends over 10 square kilometres and holds 428 million cubic metres of waste. And so on.

Migratory fowl, including tundra swans and snow geese, often flock to these toxic hot spots mistaking them for real water. The federal migratory birds act says it's illegal to drown ducks and geese in bituminous soups, yet each spring thousands of ducks and shorebirds land on the waste. After getting coated with oil, many birds lose their insulation and die of hypothermia. Since the 1980s, companies have tried to keep the avian slaughter down by putting up scarecrows and using propane-powered cannons as noisemakers. But the birds have gotten used to the scare tactics.

A recent Internet posting by a tar-sands worker, Stephen Borsy, called the tailings a nightmare: "How these companies can say that they are "environmental friendly" I'll never understand... Even at —30 degrees this stuff doesn't freeze. It sits there steaming. The stench from these ponds is indescribable. I've been there. I've seen it. I smelled it."

Fred McDonald, a 71-year-old Metis who lives in the aboriginal community of Fort McKay, just 75 kilometres north of Fort McMurray, doesn't think much of the toxic ponds or strip mining either. I found him at his bungalow, where the stench of hydrocarbons from the surrounding mines contaminated the morning air. He sat in his kitchen, sipping a glass of rat root juice ("It's good for everything") and breathing through an oxygen tube. The day before he had spent several hours on a dialysis machine. He admitted that his kidneys were failing, but his mind was still sharp. He recalled the days when Tar Island was a good place to fish and hunt. "It always had moose on it. We loved that island. We are slowly losing everything."

McDonald was born on the river and has trapped, fished, farmed and even worked for the tar companies. He fondly remembers the old days when Syrian fur traders exchanged pots and pans for muskrat and beaver furs along the Athabasca. Families lived off the land then and had rabbit feasts. They also netted jackfish, pickerel and whitefish all winter long. "Everyone walked or paddled and the people were healthy." Now, he said, "No one travels that river anymore. There is nothing in that river. It's polluted. Once you could dip your cup and have a nice cold drink from that river and now you can't."

McDonald said that tar-sand pollution is killing berries and that the mines are draining the surrounding muskeg of water. "It's our future source of water and it's drying." Climate warming has changed the clear blue ice of the Athabasca River in the winter to a dangerous slush. He recently told his son not to have any more children. "They are going to suffer. They are going to have a tough time to breathe and will have nothing to drink." He dismissed the talk of reclaiming waste ponds and open pit mines as a white-skinned fairy tale. "There is no way in this world that you can put Mother Earth back like it was."

From Fort McMurray, the Athabasca River flows 300 kilometres north to Lake Athabasca, where Fort Chipewyan, Alberta's oldest community, sits on the shore. The residents here are being struck down by leukemia, lymphomas, lupus and autoimmune diseases, and they suspect something is wrong with the water coming from the tar sands. In the last two years, at least five residents have died of a rare, painful and untreatable cancer of the bile duct called cholangiocarcinoma. The local medical examiner, Dr. John O'Connor, knows a lot about the disease. His father died of it in Ireland in 1993. "Its vicious. He died six weeks after the diagnosis. The cancer is bad and the treatment is bad." Given that the disease normally appears in one in 100,000, O'Connor didn't think he'd ever see it again. Then he started flying up to Fort Chipewyan every week to provide medical care six years ago. Since then, he's documented more cases of cholangiocarcinoma than a doctor might expect to find in a city the size of Halifax.

Scientists don't know much about bile duct cancer but they suspect chemical toxins including PAHs directly cause it. (The human liver works as the body's sewage system, and most toxins get exported out the bile duct.) Arsenic, another carcinogen, may also be a factor. O'Connor noted that Alberta Environment permits Suncor and Syncrude to legally dump up to 70 kilograms of arsenic into the Athabasca River every year. When combined with benzene, another common tar-sands toxin, arsenic simply dissolves a person's DNA and "leaves them open to developing cancer."

In 2003, O'Connor raised his growing suspicions before the EUB, the province's energy regulator. It promised a study but never did one. Last spring, O'Connor asked Alberta Health for a full study of the rare cancers and other illnesses in Fort Chipewyan. But that's not what he got. The government instead produced a quick and incomplete analysis (with no peer review) that curiously excluded data from 2004 and 2005. It concluded that cancer incidence rates "were comparable to the provincial average." O'Connor called the study a sham.

"Where is this [cancer] coming from?" the exasperated doctor asked me. "Fort McMurray doesn't have this problem. I can't explain it. I'm not saying stop the oil sands, I'm just asking questions." O'Connor then posed another question: "If we could reverse the flow of the river, and people in Fort McMurray had to drink the water that people in Fort Chipewyan drink, can you imagine what the reaction would be?"

To get a handle on the environmental impacts of the tar sands, industry and government set up a 46-member multi-stakeholder group called the Cumulative Environmental Management Association (CEMA) in 2000. Since then it has had four different directors and completed more than 100 studies. Most have never seen the light of day. CEMA's latest director, John McEachern, an amiable fellow who arrived from a job in Egypt in the summer of 2006, says CEMA has working groups-largely drawn from industry-looking at surface water, reclamation, air pollution and ecosystems. He admitted that CEMA isn't looking at groundwater, and also isn't considering climate change. "It's not on the list," said McEachern.

McEachern admitted that he was somewhat astounded by the rapid pace of the tar-sands development. "What difference would it make if you took a long-term approach to development as opposed to going hell-bent for leather? It appears to me that the Alberta government hasn't done any deep thinking about the speed." A cursory reading of a few published papers on CEMA's website indicates that CEMA has also let development speedily outpace basic science on the tar sands' effects on land, water and air.

CEMA's Sustainable Ecosystem Working Group, for instance, has only posted one document on wildlife (toads). Yet a 2006 study by the Pembina Institute ("Death by a Thousand Cuts") reported that woodland caribou populations around current in situ developments have crashed by 50 per cent in the last decade, and that fur-bearers and bird species will decline by 80 per cent in industrialized tar-sands landscapes. The paper concluded that in situ projects alone would "push many species over the brink."

As a consequence, most aboriginal groups don't think CEMA has done its job very well. Last fall the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation withdrew from the group saying it had failed to protect the Athabasca River. A prominent ecologist, who briefly worked for the group, also gave CEMA a failing grade. "They've spent heroic sums of money and have been very reticent to share information. A lot of their studies are absolute shit. Some read like the oil sands is nirvana and everything is a win, win, win. The fundamental issues have been ignored." The ecologist added that no one from CEMA wanted to admit that surface mining alone-just 20 per cent of the tar-sands projects-could destroy 150,000 square kilometres of forest and muskeg. "There are trade-offs, winners and losers, and they don't want to hear that."

Near the end of my visit, I spent time with Donald Dabbs, a cheery Calgary engineer and veteran tar-sands worker. He said that he has no doubt that the forest would be reclaimed someday after the tar-sands rush. "There will be a different forest reconstructed... Reclamation is large, complex and expensive but it's all doable. It's just a matter of how much commitment there will be to execute it."

After 38 years of mining and reclamation work in the Fort McMurray area, the Alberta government has not recognized a single acre of the boreal forest as successfully reclaimed.

Several weeks after I left Fort McMurray-having survived my return trip on Hell's Highway-I called up Dave Hughes at Natural Resources Canada in Calgary. Hughes, a geologist and energy specialist, has given more than 100 talks across the country about declining global oil supplies. I asked him if burning the energy equivalent of a barrel of oil to retrieve two from the sands solved any of our energy problems. He said it didn't. "It's false logic to think that oil sands will allow business as usual. It's a real mistake." He added that it's important that we power down and consume less energy. "Otherwise Mother Nature will fix the problem and then it's just a question of how chaotic things will become."

The social critic Wendell Berry once observed that there are such things as "economic weapons of massive destruction." The tar-sands boom, which now produces a million barrels a day-the same volume we export to the U.S.-is definitely one of them. Our oil-addicted neighbour now wants Canada to increase this weapon five-fold "in the short term" and to streamline our environmental regulations to ease U.S. dependency on Saudi oil. So the tar sands are a man-made hydrocarbon hurricane still gathering irrational force. Given that only three per cent of the accessible bitumen has been recovered to date, experts agree that one of the most destructive energy projects on the planet is on a roll.

These days, whenever I fill up my gas tank, I think of toxic tailings ponds, Highway 63, dead caribou, cancer-ridden elders, weather-making clouds of carbon-and 50 more projects to come.

I have started to walk more.