Fort McMurray – August 7-9, 2012

This is the final posting.

Thank you for your patience with this – I know these postings have been rather long.  I will have to boil them down for the book.  Please feel free to comment.

These will compose about a third of the book, 
The Pipeline and the Paradigm I will submit the manuscript by Oct 1 for publication next spring by Ruka Press.


Fort McMurray

August 7, 2012

I found Adam, Steve, and Bradley at a bar in Thickwood, just up the hill from the center of Fort McMurray.

“I’m up here because my daughter needs money to go to college.” Steve said.  “He was reluctant to talk, but once he got started, there was no stopping him.  “I wound up working pumps for and oil sands contractor.  It’s a different place from the Island (Vancouver).  I’ve been to college twice, got my operator’s in heavy machinery.”

”What kind of machinery do you operate?”

“Excavators, dozers, backhoes, loaders, fork lifts.  I was in the lumber industry for 25 years in B.C., but money is way better here.” 

“They take you away from home, so they have to compensate you for it.”

“Yeah, they do take you away from home.  Home is like winning the lottery.  There is no place like home.”  The waitress came by at that point and he asked her,  “How good is home for you?”

“I don’t get to go home very much.”  She was also from B.C.  “I’ve just been here two months – I have to stay at it.”

“What brought you up here?”  Steve was doing the interviewing for me.

“Money,” she said without hesitation. 

“You only find good attitude out of B.C. people,” Steve observed. 

“Did you know each other back home?”

“No.  Never seen each other in our life.  But we’re like family.”  Steve was still talking. “Only the strong survive.”

“Days up here mean nothing.  Bradley added.  It could be a Monday; it could be a Friday.  The only day that counts is your day off.  Even Christmas Day.  It doesn’t matter.

“Isn’t the cold weather around that time of year hard on machinery?”  I asked.

“I’ll tell you what’s hard on machinery….” Steve began.

“Yeah,” Adam laughed. “Brad, here…”.

“A lot of Newfies here, too?”  I asked.

“Yeah, there are Newfies here, apparently.”  Steve answered.  “I’ve been trying to go to a Newfie bar because they say it’s a good atmosphere, a lot of good people.  I have yet to set foot in one.”

“Do they hang out together?”

“Yeah, there are a lot of groups that stick together.  But, being a multi-cultural place, I find it really awesome, except for the fact that people up here have bad attitudes.”         “Because their heart is somewhere else?”

“Like anywhere else, we put in our time, put in our hours, get our pay checks.”

“How often do you get home?”

“I want to go home every month, but that never happens.  Once every sixty days.”

“Do you stay home for long?”

“Five days.  I get stir crazy after that.  I see my daughter for two days, my family for two days.”  Steve is always thinking of home at work, but wants to get back to work while home.

“You work twelve hour shifts?”

“Twelve hour shifts… but they pick us up an hour and a half before we’re due at work; it takes an hour and a quarter to drive up there.  So it’s really a fourteen and a half to fifteen hour day.  We do five, five, and five: five days, five nights, and five off, but that never happens.  I suck in as much as I can until I’m brain dead.  Then they make me take time off.  I’ve been up here for seven months.  There’s a lot of turnover.  Some people come for two, three months, but they can’t take it.  Adam here is a Newbie…”

“How long you been here?” I asked Adam.

“Two months.  I have to pay for one more semester of school.  It costs me about $10,000 a semester.”

“Where you going to school?”

“South Alabama.  I went there on a baseball scholarship.  But I got hurt and they took away my scholarship, so now I have to pay.  You pay the state rate, then you pay the out of state rate, then they double it for international.  Then there are living expenses.”

“What is your work here?”

“We pretty much pump fresh water into the plant and onto the wastewater so it has a chance to settle.”

“So here we are,” Steve piped back in, re-setting the stage.  “Making money.  Trying to do the best we can.  I’m putting aside money to build my own house.  The oil industry is here to stay.  We all count the days till we get back.  We work hard, but we count the days.  It’s long hours; it’s a struggle to stay awake.  We all come here for a reason.  You don’t know anybody personally the first little while, but then they become family, and a good family, too.  We all got each other’s back.  We help each other out.”

“I didn’t know nobody when I came up here.”  He continued.  “I was like a stranger in a strange land.  They just toss you up here, in this house.  I didn’t meet anyone.  Either you make it or break it.  That all there is to it.”

“Does the company own the house?”

“Yeah.”  Adam said.  “That’s kinda good because they put all the same guys together.  If somebody sleeps late or something, we can wake him up.  They drive us to work in a van.”

“Do you have a car here, too?”

“No.  We live near by; everything’s right around here.  We walk.”

“Is it easy to save money here?” I asked.  “There’s drink, girls, drugs…”

“Drugs are for duds.”  Steve said.  “It’s easy for Bradley, here, to save money, because he never buys us rounds…”  Everyone laughed.  Bradley is the tightwad in the family.

“It’s easy,” Bradley confirmed.  “Don’t buy a big truck; don’t pay $1500 a month on rent like everyone else around here.  You’re still making six – eight grand a month…”

“And you’re packing it away.”

Exactly.”  Bradley reminded me of myself at an earlier age.  I was working in New York, and packing it away to buy the farm in Kentucky.

“If you have no education, you can come up here and make what doctors and lawyers make.”

“Do you feel like this is home, though?”

“I could stay here for a while, maybe seven, ten years.  Then go back home and live there for ten, then back here for twenty, then back for ten…  But I can make a down payment on a house from what I earn here.   I need a hundred thousand dollars, so I can do something.” 

“What if the price of crude oil drops?”

“There’s no worries.  I’ve been reading this book: Tar Sands


“Yeah!  Who are… Wait…Are you?…. What’s your name?”  Bradley remembered I was an author.

“Sam Avery… not Nikiforuk.”

He relaxed.  “I’ve been reading it at work.  He, like, knows more than anybody about it.  But he’s kind of like mad at it all.  He’s very negative.  He talks about the pollution, how they ignore the pollution, little particles in the air.”

“What do you think about it?”

“Those stacks… they just puke out the white fly ash.  Thing is, nobody can put a finger on how bad it really is.  You know, I come home feeling a little grogged down a bit.  But the guys who work on the loaders and the crushers, its ten times worse.  After a few years… I’ve seen guys who look so old and beat up.  Nobody can really pinpoint what it is.  Nobody really wants to talk about that.”

“You’re not worried that crude oil prices might fall and put people out of work?”

“This all got started thirty, forty years ago, but only got going big in the last decade.  We’re at the very start of a thing that’s going to go on for 500 years.”

“Do you know anything about the climate impact of burning all this tar sand?”

“Co2?”  Adam asked.  “Ninety-eight percent of it is from volcanoes.  I don’t think any one of these sites up here can be blamed single handedly for CO2.  I don’t like to argue about it because nobody’s ever going to be able to shut it down.”

August 8, 2012

I drove north this morning, past Fort McKay (pronounced McKye) to the edge of the asphalt.  There were road signs for Fort Chipewyan and Bear Lake, but the road is only open in winter.  There are lakes and rivers that form their own bridges only in cold weather.  I stopped along the Athabasca River, downstream from the tailings ponds.  The water was muddy along the edge, as could be expected for so large a river.  I could not see if it was clear farther out.  It smelled okay.  I placed my hand in the water and wondered what it might be carrying north.  I did not know.

On the way back to Fort McMurray, I stopped at a reclamation site near the Syncrude Plant: Gateway Hill.  The area was mined and then used as a tailings pond.  It was filled with spent sand and planted in 1983 and 84 with Green alder, Saskatoon berry, White spruce, Aspen poplar and Red Oster dogwood.   The wetlands below the hill are sprouting in cattail, slender wheat grass, red fescue, and gooseberry.  The trees on the hillsides were low growing and unspectacular, and the land felt like a dim reflection of its former self, but the breeze was fluttering through the aspen and birds and insects were flying between branches.  There was life here.  The area was quite small next to the vast un-reclaimed ponds that surrounding it.  But this was a start.  The forest recovers so slowly from mining and the tar sands industry is so young that reclamation is very much a learning process in Alberta.  Not much of it has happened yet.  I spent the late morning hours wandering the three-kilometer path through the struggling trees, stopping to look and feel what was there.  I gave thanks that care had been taken to heal this land.  I applauded the people who made the decisions to restore this land, and those who carried it out.  I do not believe they would – or could – have done this without others making them do it – shaming them into it.   As corporations, they are programmed to extract, to process, and to sell – not to care.  Care comes of a larger organ of ourselves.  Care becomes good business only through public opinion.  If society did not care, this land would be a toxic mud hole. 

But is this land healed?  Is this all it takes?  After nearly thirty years, what of life has returned?  Was this a hill before?  Were these trees here? 

The trees, now looming fifteen or twenty feet overhead, are planted in rows, like cornstalks.  How long will this tidiness of aspen and jack pine stand here at attention, stricken by our command, by our sense of order, before natural contours of land enfold them?  How long before they look at ease in their native land?  Will second or third generations recover the traditional ways?  The Earth will heal in time, because that is what the Earth does.  She will return to this place when the tar sands are removed, piped, and burned, but she will not be what she was.  She has been violated, wounded, traumatized.   The scar will show.  The wound is deep – through the skin – but the Earth is deeper.  Her flesh will grow back.  

We will be part of the healing process.  We will learn from this place.  We will watch how the Earth heals herself, and allow her to heal us.  We will find out how she moves and move with her.  We will come to know her before we ask for her resources, and see those who extract and sell from the land as an arm of ourselves, and insist they leave an offering.  We will respect the Earth because she is larger than we.  She is gentle, but keeps us in her power.  We are in her arms. 

The woodpecker calls faintly from deep within the ground.  Dragonflies dance in sunlight along the path.

If the Earth should learn to heal in our absence, our absence will be the healing she learns.

Back in town, I met Jim at the bar in a pizza joint.  It was mid afternoon, and the room was nearly empty.   He had a small, narrow build and wore a ragged baseball cap.  I judged him to be around thirty.  He was skeptical when I introduced myself.

“Why are you writing this book?  Is it going to be on the pros and cons, or is it going to be only the pros, or only the cons?” 

“It’s a big issue that opens a lot of questions – questions about jobs, economy, environment, landowner rights, the climate.  I’m trying to find out what people’s stories are.  I’m saying what they say.”

“I don’t have a lot to say on this…”  Jim went back to his beer, and I thought I had lost him.  But then he looked directly at me.  “I love the environment – I live in Wooster, B.C., one of the most beautiful places in Canada, where the Olympics were held.  If I ever heard of a pipeline going through there, I’d be disgusted.  But the fact of the matter is, the way the world is going now, we need energy, and fuel, the fossil fuels… we got to get it somewhere.  It’s as simple as that.  I hate the job; I hate hearing about the spills, and everyone bitches about it.  But it happens.  That’s too bad.  But if none of these pipelines weren’t there, well, guess what? – We’d be f***ed.  We could find other ways, but at this time they’re not feasible.”

Like most people I met, Jim opened up as he spoke.  “We’re just simple people.  Like my old man – he’s been a pipeliner his whole life; it’s not his fault that all of a sudden there’s a crack and a spill.  There’s inspections; there’s x rays done on every single weld, but then there’s natural phenomena.  I don’t know the whole thing.” 

“Are you a pipe fitter?”

“I’m learning, I’m an apprentice.  And you know, there’s the Keystone pipeline – all my friends are against it.  But this is the line of work we’re in.  It’s not our decision.  The government wants this – it’s all about money.  Money rules governments.  It’s as simple as that.”

I bought him another beer.

Jim wanted to keep talking, but I could tell he was depressed.  He often interrupted himself, or me, and then took back what he had just said.  He had just found out a few hours before that his thirty-three year old brother in Ontario had been diagnosed with lung cancer.  Not from smoking, he didn’t think, but from working inside at a poorly ventilated welding shop.  “My dad is ready to take out a loan – he doesn’t care how big it is – to pay for treatment in the States.  So what do I do?  I’m f***ing alone here right now.  I don’t have anyone.” 

“How long have you been here?”

“Since January.  I did a pipeline job.  That was good.  That was fun.”

“Have you been back to B.C.?”

“Once.  B.C. is the best place in the world, to me.” 

I was drinking a Molson M, and ordered another.  Jim stopped me.  “What are you drinking that stuff for?  Get a Molson Canadian.”

“OK… talked me into it.  We Americans can’t tell the difference, you know.”  We laughed.  “Tell me more about your work.”

“I work out in the mines.  I do a good job – a great job.  I always do a good job.   I do ten hour days, ten days on, four days off.  We’re welding pipe together for these giant ponds, the tailings.  I don’t know how it works.  They’re trying to recycle as much water as possible to use less natural water.  It’s actually pretty cool.”

“That’s a good thing.  That way they don’t use as much water from the river.”

“It’s a damn good thing.” 

“What do people do on their days off?”

“Drink.”  The waitress interrupted, filling a beer mug for another customer.

“A lot of people get involved in drugs,” Jim went on.  “I don’t do the drugs.  Anyways.  Why am I in the business? – Because there is money to be made.  I don’t control decisions.  Money rules the day.  That’s the way these big companies work.”  He was becoming more cynical, with the beer, and with his brother’s illness on his mine.  “To me, I hate it.  The paychecks are good, but I hate this place.  I live in camp – I call it jail – there’s security everywhere.”

“What are they worried about with security?”

“Oh, I don’t know, probably drugs and alcohol.  My dad tried to drop me off one time – we had dinner together – and I showed them my badges at the main gate, and he’s like ‘I’m just dropping off my son,’ but they were like ‘Oh, we can’t let you through.’  Suncor camp: it’s beautiful – love it to death.”  

“But you hate it.  You hate it or you love it? – What is it, man?”

“Can’t you tell my sarcasm?”

Jim took a long draw on his beer and looked around the room.  “You know,” he said in summary.  “This is generally your oil.  If they don’t like it, you guys will just take over our country and that’s it.  All of a sudden Canada is America.  Although, you’ll have a lot of hunting rifles to deal with.  A lot of good men will go down to fight for our country.  We wouldn’t win, but we’d take down a lot of Americans.”

“We did invade you two hundred years ago, in 1812.”

“I know, and we won.”

August 9, 2012

At the Oil Sands Discovery Centre in Fort Mac they show you what to discover and where to discover it.  I was expecting a barrage of carbonated PR: self-promotion and heroism – searching to meet our ever-growing energy needs, etc. – and I got it, but there was quite a bit of useful environmental information as well.  The presentations and exhibits were more balanced that I had thought they would be.  The total reserve in Alberta is 1.7 – 2.5 trillion barrels, 300 billion of which is extractable with current technology.  A sign at the exhibit called it “The Biggest Know Oil Reserve in the World,” but the guide who showed us how oil sand is processed and distilled said the Alberta reserves were actually third in the world, behind Saudi Arabia and Venezuela.

One exhibit demonstrated how the in situ, or steam extraction process, damages the environment without destroying the entire boreal surface.  The first step is dissection, a linear slicing of the forest by cut lines for roads, power lines and pipelines.  This creates discontinuous habitat, and allows penetration of the forest by invasive species.  Perforation happens with inroads into the forest from the cut lines for pump stations, equipment, housing, supply yards, etc, which is a greater total area destruction of boreal habitat.  Fragmentation begins when perforation inroads meet one another, leaving islands of isolated forest.  This type of environmental degradation is common in outlying areas beyond the surface mines, and in the Peace River and Coal River deposits, where eighty percent of the tar sands are extracted.  The exhibits suggested ways that the damage could be minimized. 

Toxicity was not discussed in any depth, and the climate impact of trillions of barrels of new hydrocarbons was not mentioned.  There was no attempt to hide, only to normalize.  There were exhibits where visitors could used fixed tools to scoop and stir the tar sands without, of course, touching them.

From the Discovery Centre I boarded a bus for a tour of the SunCor facility.  We drove north along the Athabasca River.  At the main gate, security people boarded the bus, walked up and down the aisle, looked us over, smiled, and waved us through.  The largest trucks in the world were busy dumping ore into a crusher that fed conveyor belts streaming into separating facilities.  Each truck, fully loaded, weighs 400 tons – the weight of a jumbo jet.  The Komatsu trucks cost over $4 million each, the Caterpillars $6 million.  They are delivered in pieces and assembled on location.  (After trying to drive them overland through Montana, as Ron Seifert relates.)  Drivers have to climb ladders twenty-one feet up to the cab.  The tires are around eleven feet in diameter and cost $70,000 each.  A tire change for a six-wheel truck costs over $400.000 and lasts only nine to twelve months.  Oil sand is an unforgiving substance to work in, on, or around.

Above the river we viewed a reclamation site where Suncor has planted several hundred thousand trees.  The trees are still quite small, and the site looked more like a field than a forest.  But they no longer plant trees in rows, and some wildlife has begun to move in.  As we stood outside the bus looking over the reclaimed acreage, a puff of wind blew a strong rotten-egg smell our way.  When someone asked the tour guide about it, she pointed to the sulfur extracting facility across the road.  She made no apology.  One of the tourists said, “We were told the smell was going to be terrible up here; but this isn’t so bad.” 

From the Suncor plant we headed farther north up highway 63 to where the Healing Walk had begun six days earlier.  We followed the same route, circling the same former mine, in reverse direction.  We saw the same waters, the same tailings – the same off-white sands piled in mounds around the edges of the water.  I was looking through the lightly tinted glass of the bus windows at the same thing I had seen earlier.  Tar sands were now oil sands; the black had been bleached white; toxicity was nowhere to be seen.  “There is less in this sand,” the tour guide assured us, “Than when we mined it.  The bitumen has been removed.”  Square miles of desert whiteness spread before us, like an ocean beach suspended in the midst of the boreal forest.  It was all so normal, so plain, so matter of fact.  This is simply what we have to do for energy.

The popping of propane cannons barely penetrated to the whirr of the bus engine.

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