FORT MACKAY — Figuring out which way the winds are blowing is a piece of cake in the hamlet of Fort MacKay, Canada. Just follow the direction of the fumes. On this cold February morning, with temperatures below -20 °C (-4 ºF) in the northern part of Alberta, the columns rising from the chimneys of the oil sands exploitation sites are pushed to the south. But sometimes, they choose to head north, following the Athabasca River and settling on this small Indian reserve, a village of 700 inhabitants, surrounded by the oil industry.
Fort MacKay's natives were here long before Alberta began harvesting the black gold from its soil in the 1960s. The province is home to the world's third-largest unconventional oil reserve (168 billion barrels), a dense and sticky bitumen mixed with sand, clay and water. Extracting these oil sands has made the region prosper in many ways, and few foresee its decline, despite falling oil prices.
The province continues to look for outlets for the more than two million barrels it's capable of producing daily. Even though President Barack Obama vetoed legislative approval of the Keystone XL project — a pipeline that would transport part of the oil sands to the Gulf of Mexico — the industry shows no signs of slowing down. And this despite the many alarming reports of the environmental toll for which the industry is responsible.
Oil sands extraction produces three to four times more greenhouse gases than conventional oil harvesting, and is already responsible for 800 square kilometers of boreal forests being razed. It threatens to kill off the caribou as it requires the pumping of vast quantities of water from a river whose level is dropping every year.
On the bank of the Athabasca River, Roddy Boucher points with naked hands, despite the biting cold, in the direction of fumes rising from at least three industrial sites on the horizon. "The view used to be nicer," he says with nostalgia.
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Fort Mackay and the Athabasca River — Photo: The Interior
The First Nations people of Fort MacKay didn't at first see the economic windfall of the oil rush, only its consequences. "One day, some people from the reserve went to see if the rabbit traps had worked," says Dayle Hyde, a member of the community who is also in charge of its public relations. "They found no rabbits, and no traps. The forest had been razed." Little by little, the installation of open-pit mines cut the trapping lines, and revenues from caribou hunting fell.
"People at the time started to notice changes in the river," Hyde explains. As lesions appeared on the skin of the fish, people became scornful of the industry. Back in the 1980s, the reserve didn't have running water, and the community's leader was furious when she learned there had been a toxic spill in the river from neighboring installations belonging to the energy company Suncor. It took the oil group three weeks to warn the population, which had continued to drink the water in the meantime.
"We started to oppose the projects, but our voices were never heard," Hyde says. In the mid-1990s, Fort MacKay decided to change tactics. "Since fighting was leading us nowhere, we decided to negotiate," he says. Since then, the community has been studying every new construction project in detail, assessing the slightest damage to its inhabitants and, when the industry says those are unavoidable, the community has been negotiating financial compensation. These deals have accelerated community development, providing it with enough social infrastructure and schools and also opulent-looking houses. But this prosperity contrasted with the despair of other aboriginal Canadian communities is raising hackles.
"That's the price they pay to kill us slowly," says Celina Harpe, who's never at a loss for words. At almost 76 years old, she remembers her grandfather warning her that one day she would have to buy bottled water. "The water is drinkable," assures Dan Stuckless, a member of the community's sustainable development team. "But people have lost their trust."
A soiled environment
Suspicion has settled in over the years. Nobody fishes in the Athabasca River anymore, and lately, people are more worried about the water they use from taps. "Eczema has become endemic," says Dr. John O'Connor, Fort MacKay's director of Health & Human Services. In his practice, he hears the same complaints over and over: dry, itchy skin that resolves itself when the patient is away for a weekend.
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The Athabasca tar sands c. 1900-1930 — Source: Library and Archives Canada
The symptoms suggest possible connections between industrial pollution and the high number of rare cancers diagnosed among another small native communities several hundred kilometers away that lived off the fish of the Athabasca River. "We can't be certain that the water is what causes all these symptoms," he says.
To be sure of it, these populations have been waiting more than 10 years for a scientific study about the impact of the industry on their health. They accuse the local government of having "turned their back on us two years ago" when it stopped responding to their requests. The authorities evade the question and claim to "support" the communities' choice for an independent study. "We had no other choice," O'Conner says.
People in Fort MacKay now distrust the government as much as the tap water. Two years ago, they noticed that the system that evaluates air quality filtered only two air pollutants, nitrogen dioxides and sulfur. And not, for instance, fine particles. "They lied to us," O'Connor says angrily. The reserve is often invaded by smells of "rotten egg or cat urine," sometimes coupled with a mist that doesn't look one bit like a normal meteorological phenomenon.
Emissions of greenhouse gases per barrel have decreased slightly in the 2000s, but production continues to increase, thus annihilating any positive effect this could have on the environment.
"Oil sands will be the main reason why Canada won't meet its ecological targets," says Amin Asadollahi of the Pembina Institute, a Canadian think tank that specializes in green energy. O'Connor worries that a European decision in December to open the door to imports of this type of unconventional oil will increase the environmental damage. "Such acts place the populations living here in even greater danger," he warns.
In Fort MacKay, Roddy Boucher and the rest of the residents have long stopped believing that the winds will change. "They're here, we're here, and they're stronger than we are. We just have to make do."