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Notes from the Tar Pits: From McMurray to MacKay
June 14, 2007
Well, there is so much to say, and when it is said the words aren’t sufficient. When we left the town of McMurray to head north a little ways to Fort MacKay, I wasn’t even the slightest bit prepared to injest what was next. The ride was both incredibly entertaining and fully useful, as Eddie and Lance picked us up. Eddie offered to drive us to Fort MacKay after discovering that two of us were from Montréal. Eddie berated an inebriated Lance while he explained what we were looking at as we left town to drive past first Suncor, then Syncrude, and finally Albian Oilsands before being taken for a climb up and down on the trucks in the MacKay Industrial Park, just on the other side of the “Bridge to Nowhere”.
First? You notice that the highway, while it was described as “this is nothing” for traffic, is jammed almost constantly with nothing but big rigs, yet some of the rigs are so massive that an ordinary semi-trailer hauling truck—one loaded even with logs from clearcuts near the ‘projects’—seem like Tonka toys. I got the weirdest, most consuming creep inside my stomach as the simple mere mortal smallness of the ant-like people became real. It was a feeling that I had one precedent for: Standing on the edge of the Peel Viewpoint on the Dempster Highway, where three valleys of immense proportion all meet, where you can see past the ends of the earth it feels—making the insignificance of yourself feel very unsettling.
This was different. This was feeling the stench of death reach into every pore of the visible world, completely taking over the air, the water, everything. The first true moonscape views, right near the Syncrude refinery itself, were absolutely jaw-dropping. The whole thing feels utterly military. Everywhere we went it was clear you could feel the triumph of nothing where somewhere there had been something before. We are not talking simple clearcuts. Clearcuts take the trees, disrupt an ecosystem, on cliff banks they expose the soil to erosion from rainfall. Here? The trees disappear, and then the machines eat the earth. Everything, as far as the eye can see, “Up to nine stories deep!” according to our first ride in the area, is simply gone, just *gone* with only sand left. Our ride was Eddie—a man who was happy with his job as a dispatcher but was preparing to leave back for Québec. He had the industry line on many things, right down to a discussion of the Bison in pens near the plant.
A later ride through the area gave a different slant on the Buffalo in the little pen. “Ask the people in Fort MacKay about the green toxic smoke that was making people’s eyes water, and how nobody cared when MacKay complained. When it persisted, Syncrude moved the Bison but kept the workers going, right up until the whole town of Fort McMurray got literal wind of it. Then they had to shut it down and deal with the problem.”
But back to Eddie. He was amazed at the grandeur of the project, and that I can certainly share-- but if that grandeur mostly frightens me beyond belief you’ll have to excuse me. By the time he was pointing off to the side of the road to the giant barracks housing the thousands of workers into tiny rooms, I was feeling an utterly surreal experience. Then there are the lakes of toxic waste, unreturnable to the river system, already seeping, and set to grow into the size of Lake Ontario before it all stops. He dropped us in MacKay. Sitting on a bench in the community, you can see the plume of Suncor belching into the daytime sky. As that went on, the flaring continued. Later, in what was the largest band office I have ever seen, were notices from Suncor about the excess flaring right now-- and who to phone if your water tastes funny or is the wrong colour. Syncrude had a massive cardboard display of fossils from the area, complete with logo.
I should rephrase: This _is_ military, it doesn’t “feel” military accidentally. The companies, claiming to be guarding trade secrets from other companies, ban people from going out onto the land of the most barren, out-of-the-way deserts a kilometer into what was once a living organism, taking all life, streams, rivers, watersheds, dirt, plants, everything must go. And what is left? No grass grows on piles of sand. Toxic mountains of sulphur grow on a constant drumbeat. The whole process is unrelenting, not slowing down but picking up speed. The seven projects going now, part of the world’s gigaproject of mock oil delivery all liquefied just enough to ship it across the border to refineries that proudly exist to help turn this “oil” into the bonanza stemming from the colossal American failure to make the Iraqi people simply hand over their crude. This is a military camp, where photos are restricted and admittance is denied. The secretive nature, the checkpoints, the constant radios from an endless stream of security outfits is enough to make one feel the forces of totalitarianism over your shoulder as a constant.
I am not hyperbolic. I am merely speaking the true feeling under my skin, particularly after a concerned union member saw our coterie of people wandering near the gates and fences keeping the masses out of the Syncrude Plant, all with our cameras and expecting the inevitable security knocking on our shoulder. He made us all think the game was up, but instead was an inside dissenter who wanted to feed us silent information. That will come in a different rant, but for now let us say we went behind the security lines and wandered about a work camp with our stupid stories about “being too damn tired to talk about work,” while inside the impromptu bar put up by the corporation, Albion. “No Double Shots!” screamed the banner of one sign on the lego-assembled walls.
I have yet to meet anyone who expressed any joy in their work, or happiness with the community of Fort McMurray—not even from someone (most are) steeped in Syncrude/Suncor/Albian “Oilsands” rhetoric. Small wonder. This life, one of being existent to perpetuate 360 degrees of death, with an ever expanding perimeter, an ever expanding climate change race to disaster, is one that has very little that motivates. These are incredibly wealthy workers in terms of comparable pay. Not one expressing great joy at their life, though many thanks for it.
Having a union man drive us around, telling us when to drop our cameras, sneaking us here and there, while constantly under fear of security simply seizing our materials was a feeling I did not know, but it felt like sneaking onto a military base. He was constantly asking us to be careful, not wanting to lose his employment. Our ride agreed with that comparison (I alluded to being shown around Petawawa Base a few years back), and Dru declared it was a lot like the USSR. That I can see: The feeling of constantly knowing someone can demand your papers be checked, can (in many cases) simply take away your photographic equipment and is backed by the law in issuing this censorship over what is being done to the “overburdened” land, even after the machines go somewhat silent in an area—it has the most totalizing, self-indoctrinating feel to it. It is not welcoming; it is not simple, nor is it free. It is military, it is against the exchange of ideas and it is the great reminder that this is not “ordinary capital”, this is not “another mine”, this is not even “another oil field”, this is something extraordinary and taking all of humanity away from the earth that sustains us at the most breakneck of breakneck paces possible. The town is melting, the land is gone, everything just gone and never coming back, and in all directions are the plumes of the consumption of the planet. And the oil hasn’t even been burned yet, the cars have yet to injest the 1.3 million barrels that were produced here yesterday, again today and that plus more tomorrow, as nothing around here will live soon, perhaps save an albatross that flies over here, a moonscape from a past where earth once lived. They want five million barrels a day. They want to plough out the entire territory beyond visual capability. They want to mow down every tree, take out every river, watershed, creek, and not a speck of life—save for mosquitoes from nearby swamps (not even mosquitoes flourish on the dead lakes of toxicity).
People may already be dying of cancers downstream, the same must be said of many workers and locals as well. Who cares if the town of Fort McMurray is like a den of Vegas’s underdroppings where once there was a community? Who is concerned about being unable to imagine that the time needed to measure future “reclamations” will be geologic? So what if killing people who are segregated from other workers behind fences, given no rights and used as laborious cattle from China, Mexico and more becomes the standard? If we don’t carry out this project, then the US and Canadian adventures abroad will show up as the catastrophic and total utter failures that they are. The people who live with the land will be given a sense of actual administration of that which they have not destroyed in their history. Human beings will have to find an existence that does not have oil as a bottom line—whether in the Middle East or in the Boreal Forest. There _is_ a war going on here, another front to the same diabolical plot to unleash us into a climate change nightmare, rather than entertain the notion that there is life beyond hydrocarbons.
Admitting that would negate Dick Cheney’s “The American way of life is non-negotiable”. That’s why a slow down, shut down, single environmental standard, human rights, union rights, drug and alcoholic explosions, homeless populations skyrocketing, disasters in every medical facility, the disruption of a 30 year ban on Pacific Ocean oil and gas shipping into BC, the plight of the Mackenzie Valley and swaths of Alaska, Nebraska, Dakota north and south, California, Saskatchewan, Yukon, BC and more—all must go, because the “American way of life is non-negotiable”.
Nonsense. What is non-negotiable is our awakening to the same scale of plan and demand that is taking the whole of the regions affected into a nether world of post-industrial apocalypse. The last ride back into town yesterday dropped us where we slept beside the Athabasca River last night. I awoke to think of the water this morning: Did I have enough to make coffee for others and myself, while eating the needed oatmeal? Another day of this increasingly out-of-body madness would require energy. But water is a special need. I’d gladly share any of the food I have at pretty much any given moment. The problem is when I think about the importance of water. It is hard to carry much while living in a backpack. I thought all this while I began my day, looking at the murky mighty Athabasca River. It needs more water. Water is essential to life, and ultimately, like in my bottles of supply, it is very important to set limits to how you dole out water, because running out will help no one.
I thought of that, while I thought on the totality of the Syncrude/Suncor strangle hold on the town. It’s not like anywhere else. It’s simply not of this earth. The earth needs the water, and we need the earth. The tarpits are taking four barrels of water for one barrel of mock oil. Just more to think about, while I packed and readied for another long day, as shock slowly gives way to anger.
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