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Fort McMurray: The Tar Sands

posted by dru Geography: West Fort McMurray Topics: oil, tar sands

June 14, 2007

Fort McMurray: The Tar Sands



1. Syncrude's bitumen processing plant is not accessible, though it is visible from the highway. Apparently, there are plans to move the highway so that the road past Syncrude will be a private road.

2. The area near Syncrude was excavated long ago. This sandy expanse was formerly a pit, 800 feet deep. After the tar sands (consisting of a 15 ft layer) were removed, the pit was filled in with the excess sands. If you go anywhere near it, the oily smell is enough to make one dizzy and provoke a mild headache. Nothing lives or grows there. Massive tailing ponds--filled with water and chemical waste--are nearby, but not visible.

3. Before the land above the tar sands can be removed (they call it "overburden"), the trees on top of it have to be removed. Very little is visible from the road, but once you venture into the forbidden zone, you can see hundreds of piles of slash and logs like these. It's the first step in removing the biosphere to get to the cruder stuff beneath.

4. Tens of thousands of tar sands workers live in barracks like this. More on that later.

5. "Heavy Haulers," which would put any monster truck to shame are used to haul the tar sands out of the interminable pits. The trucks pictured can haul 400 tonnes at a time.

Speaking to tar sands workers is a strange exercise in processing contradictions. These folks are making $30, $40 and $50 per hour, often bringing home upwards of $100,000 a year. But if you ask them what they think, the responses are surprising. In the same breath that they talk about the money they're making, workers (men and women) will say things like "it's a mess, it's a huge mess" and even "it's a crime against humanity".

So it's sort of hard to prepare yourself to see what's actually out there.

It's also hard to see what's actually out there. The land that's being mined is publicly owned, but leased by Syncrude, Suncor and others, and we've been told by a number of sources that folks who venture in will end up with trespassing charges, a seized camera and even a police escort off of the premises. In this case, the premises are--potentially--the size of the state of Florida.

It's hard to get photos like some of those above, but some kind strangers helped us into a few... normally inaccessible areas. What remains off limits to the public is far greater still.

One cannot go wrong overestimating the size of the massive, gargantuan, epic area that will be logged, dug up, emptied of its bitumen, and left as a vast, empty expanse. As the New York Times put it, a "moonscape."

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